An Israeli airstrike killed three senior military commanders from the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas movement a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that forces would hunt militant leaders down.
The raid, coming close behind an apparent attempt on the life of Hamas’s top military chief, was followed by a barrage of rockets on Israel from Gaza and a wave of Israeli aerial attacks on the Palestinian territory. The surge in violence threatens to overwhelm Egyptian efforts to halt six weeks of hostilities that have killed 2,075 Palestinians, including 27 today, according to Gaza officials, and 67 on the Israeli side. The last in a series of Egypt-brokered truces unraveled Aug. 19.
“We will continue to hunt down and attack Hamas leaders at any time and wherever they may be,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said today in an e-mailed statement. Late yesterday, Netanyahu said “the commanders of terror organizations are a legitimate target. No one is immune.”
The prime minister deflected a question on whether Hamas’s military commander, Mohammed Deif, died in an Aug. 19 airstrike that killed one of his wives and their young son and two children. The militia said yesterday that Deif was alive.
In the past, Israel has gone after political and religious leaders to weaken Hamas, as in 2004 when it killed the group’s quadriplegic founder and spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in a missile attack from an AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship. A month later, Hamas’s top political chief, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, died in similar fashion.
“It’s the next step,” Shabtai Shavit, former director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, said in a telephone interview. “They say everybody’s replaceable, but that takes time. Eliminating the leadership damages their ability to fight effectively.”
As the violence flared, Israeli cabinet ministers authorized the call-up of 10,000 reserves troops in a telephone vote, a Defense Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because the government didn’t want to officially announce the mobilization yet.
Top Hamas political and military figures have been in hiding throughout the fighting, making the overnight raid the most successful known achievement in Israel’s campaign to cripple the movement’s leadership. After the attack, Hamas security forces arrested and executed three suspected Palestinian collaborators with Israel, according to Al-Rai, the group’s news agency. Israel, the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
The airstrike in the southern city of Rafah killed Raed Attar, who the military said masterminded the construction of tunnels to infiltrate Israel and the 2006 operation in which soldier Gilad Shalit was captured. Shalit was held five years before Israel won his release by trading him for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The raid also killed Mohammed Abu Shamala, commander of Hamas’s military operations in the southern Gaza Strip, and Mohammed Barhoum, a Hamas weapons smuggler and fundraiser, the military said in an e-mailed statement.
Hamas’s armed wing vowed revenge. “Killing our leaders won’t weaken us,” the Al-Qassam Brigades said in an e-mailed statement. “The enemy will pay a very heavy price for this crime.”
In the short run, Hamas will probably to step up its anti-Israel rhetoric and attacks, said Meir Litvak, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. In the longer term, the killings may give it “a little more incentive to resume negotiations” by exposing its vulnerabilities, he said.
Militants fired at least 80 rockets today and Israel’s air force carried out 41 strikes, the military said.
While Israeli and Palestinian negotiators left Cairo after the truce broke down, Egypt’s foreign ministry said yesterday it had contacted officials on both sides to urge them to recommit to a cease-fire, according to an e-mailed statement.
Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, who has sought to help broker the cease-fire talks, met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal today to discuss developments in Gaza, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
Israel opened its military offensive after weeks of rocket fire and airstrikes. It withdrew ground forces on Aug. 5 under one of several cease-fires that have been shattered. It accuses militants of causing civilian casualties by locating operations within built-up areas and using civilians as human shields.
The Egypt-mediated talks have aimed at reaching a lasting accord addressing issues unresolved by pacts ending two previous conflicts. Hamas has demanded an end to the blockade on the coastal territory that Israel, citing security considerations, initiated after the group won Palestinian elections in 2006. Israel has sought assurances that militants won’t resume their rocket attacks and cross-border raids.
Israeli markets have been largely unaffected by the Gaza fighting. Tel Aviv’s benchmark TA-25 index advanced for the first time in five days by 0.3 percent, and the shekel dropped 0.5 percent
Netanyahu is facing pressure for tough action from hawkish members of his cabinet, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who wrote on his Facebook page yesterday that Hamas must be “crushed” unless Israel wants to face a war of attrition. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Liberman’s statements “stupid” and warned in a statement that Israel would face “the toughest days it has ever experienced” should it follow the foreign minister’s lead.