Israeli jets struck the Gaza Strip today, killing the leader of Hamas’s military wing as the army pledged the use of ground troops for the first time since 2009 if required to end attacks on its citizens.
Israel’s air and sea attacks on targets in Gaza, which officials said was in response to Hamas rockets fired against Israeli civilians, posed an immediate test to its cold peace with Egypt. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who rose from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood in an Arab Spring uprising, ordered the recall of the country’s ambassador to Israel and called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League.
The Israeli army said it called up reserves in advance of a possible infantry assault, which would be the first since Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza in January 2009 after a three-week military assault that left more than 1,100 Palestinians dead. The Israeli strikes also targeted rocket storage areas for Hamas, an “Iranian proxy responsible for terror attacks on Israel,” according to the Israel Defense Forces.
“Today we delivered a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist groups,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address. “If there is a need, the Israeli military is ready to broaden the operation.”
Ahmed al-Jabari was targeted by a “surgical strike” and identified him as a senior figure “who served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks,” the IDF said in an e-mailed statement. An eyewitness, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said Jabari’s body was pulled from the wreckage of a car hit by a missile and identified by a Palestinian policeman who examined his identity card.
The violence sent oil prices higher. Crude oil advanced in New York on concern that supplies from the Middle East will be disrupted. Crude oil for December delivery gained 94 cents, or 1 percent, to settle at $86.32 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The TA-25 index dropped 0.9 percent at the close in Tel Aviv to its lowest level since Sept. 24. The yield on the 2022 benchmark government bond jumped 6 basis points to 3.98 percent, the highest since Nov. 4, and the shekel weakened 0.6 percent, trading at 3.9471 shekels per dollar at 4:46 p.m. in Tel Aviv.
The Israeli strikes follow a barrage of more than 115 rockets from Gaza into Israel this week, adding to a total of about 14,000 missiles fired from the territory in the past 11 years, according to the Israeli Defense Ministry. Since the conclusion of Israel’s 2008 ground attack on Gaza, the government has said that it holds Hamas responsible for the rocket attacks because it runs the coastal territory.
“This is the start of a bigger operation that’s already under way,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, in a telephone interview. “This is a strategic response whose goal is to avoid returning to constant rounds of Gaza rocket attacks and short-term Israeli responses, and to fundamentally change the situation.”
Israel followed the initial attack on Jabari with multiple air strikes and naval gunfire on targets in Gaza. Columns of smoke could be seen rising in Gaza areas, according to eyewitnesses. Eight Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attacks and 50 wounded, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Four of the dead were Hamas militants and four were civilians, including a child, during 25 Israeli raids, he said.
‘Gates of Hell’
Israel “has opened the gates of hell,” the Hamas militant wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said in a text message.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party condemned the attack, calling it “a crime that requires a quick Arab and international reaction to stop the massacres.”
While Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood will be under public pressure to take action, he needs to maintain international aid and support for his country’s shaky economy.
“This operation is a huge test for Mursi and the Brotherhood in general,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian peace negotiators and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“One of their key platform issues was that we are going to restore Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world,” Elgindy said. “Front and center in that is the Palestinian cause.”
Egyptians across the political spectrum support the Palestinian cause and are “hostile to Israel,” Elgindy said, creating public pressure for a reaction even as Mursi will be constrained by Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. and by the Camp David Accords that established the cold peace with Israel.
The Islamic Hamas movement seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007, ending a partnership government a year after winning parliamentary elections. The group refuses to recognize Israel or any prior deals signed with it. It is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
While Hamas was not seeking an escalation at this time, it hadn’t acted strongly to stop militant groups outside its authority from firing rockets, said Mukhemer Abu Sada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, by telephone. “Hamas is under public pressure from other Palestinian groups who say they gave up on resistance, and they didn’t want this negative message to spread.”
Status Quo Upset
Netanyahu convened senior ministers for a security briefing at army headquarters in Tel Aviv. The prime minister, who is campaigning for re-election in a vote scheduled for Jan. 22, said earlier today that Israel will extract a “heavy price” on Hamas for attacks from Gaza.
“Netanyahu, as most leaders would, is looking at what is right for his country at this point of time, and what is the benefit and price from a political point of view,” Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said by phone. “In this case, those interests coincided.”
“Israel has upset the status quo, and the militants will strongly retaliate,” Hamas official Ismail Radwan told reporters.
The Israeli Air Force targeted at least 20 underground depots in Gaza housing Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that can reach Tel Aviv, Israeli Army spokesman Avital Leibovich said in an interview in Bloomberg’s Jerusalem bureau. “Hamas is backed by Iran, a large amount of their ammunition is provided or funded by Iran,” Leibovich said.
The army issued emergency procedures for Israeli communities within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza, canceling school lessons for tomorrow and advising residents to stay close to air-raid shelters.
During the last Israeli ground attack on Gaza, the three-week Operation Cast Lead that started in 2008, more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were killed. The army is calling today’s action Operation Pillar of Defense.
“We continue to call on all sides to exercise restraint to prevent a dangerous escalation that would be in no one’s interests,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement.
The U.S. supports Israel’s right to self-defense and encourages Israel “to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said in an e-mailed statement.
“We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence,” he said.