Israel strikes back against missile onslaught, kills Hamas military chief

Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip on Nov. 14, bringing the two sides to the brink of a possible new war.

The attack came after a five-day surge of violence, which reportedly saw more than 150 missiles fired out of Gaza, causing damage to homes and factories, and Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip.

The exchanges appeared to be waning on Nov. 13, according to reports, a sign that perhaps Egypt had managed to broker a truce between Israel and Palestin-ian militants.

Hamas said that Ahmed Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, the Izz al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, died along with his son after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile.

Palestinians gather around the remains of the car in which Ahmed Jabari (inset) was traveling. photo/jta-flash90-alquds tv-wissam nassar

Israel’s Shin Bet domestic intelligence service confirmed it had carried out the attack on Jabari with the air force because of his “decade-long terrorist activity.” Israeli military officials called it a “surgical strike.”

The Al-Qassam Brigades issued a statement afterward, saying “The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself.”

Top Hamas terrorist Ismail al-Ashkar said, “The resistance’s options are now open and they include suicide attacks and quality attacks in Israel cities.”

The IDF said Jabari’s assassination marked the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza terrorists.

As part of that operation, Israeli aircraft struck at least 20 rocket-launching pads belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the operation wiped out most of Hamas’ long-range Fajr rockets, which could reach Tel Aviv and hit as far as 25 miles into Israel.

The aerial strikes were accompanied by IDF tank fire at terror sites in Gaza. The French news agency AFP reported that at least six Palestinians were killed in at least 20 Israeli strikes in Gaza.

Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio, and outside the hospital where Jabari was taken, thousands of angry Gazans chanted “retaliation” and “we want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight.”

In short order, rocket fire from Gaza resumed, with Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepting 13 rockets launched toward Beersheba, the Jerusalem Post reported. According to Israel Radio, some 50 projectiles were fired in the hours after Jabari’s death, with six landing near Beersheba.

Meanwhile, the IDF deployed additional infantry units in the south ahead of a possible ground offensive in Gaza. In addition, large IDF exercises have been halted and reserve soldiers have been called up.

On its Twitter feed, the Israeli military said things could be escalated further. “All options are on the table. If necessary, the [Israeli military] is ready to initiate a ground operation in Gaza,” it said.

IDF spokesman Yoav Mordechai said the airstrike signaled the beginning of a campaign to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror organizations in Gaza.

“The first aim of this operation is to bring back quiet to southern Israel, and the second target is to strike at terror organizations,” Mordechai said.

“[Jabari’s] killing sends a message to Hamas elements in Gaza that if they continue to promote terror activity against the State of Israel, they will be terminated,” the IDF said in a statement.

Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blamed him for a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. He was filmed escorting Shalit, who was held hostage in Gaza for more than five years, when he was handed over to Egypt last year on his way back to Israel.

Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car exploded. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell.

An IDF spokesman told Ynet that the strikes in Gaza caused severe damage to Hamas’ ability to fire long-range missiles, adding that the attacks were expected to continue and will target rocket-launchers aimed at Israel’s southern region.

“By continuously smuggling weapons, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have turned Gaza into a frontline Iranian outpost,” he said.

Operating on the diplomatic front, Israeli’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, filed another complaint with the Security Council — the third in three days — following the continued rocket fire on Israel. “No country can accept terror attacks on its cities and citizens,” he wrote.

“The international community must realize that Israel will protect its citizens at all costs.”

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, urged the U.N. Security Council to take a stand on Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip, which it said in a letter to the council amounted to ”illegal criminal actions.”

In a letter to Indian UN Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, president of the 15-nation council, Palestinian envoy Riyad Mansour wrote that  “a direct message must be sent to Israel to cease its military campaign against the Palestinian people under its occupation, including the cessation of extrajudicial killing.”

Hamas has governed Gaza since 2007 and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. It reportedly has been emboldened by the rise to power in neighboring Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel last staged a full-scale attack on Gaza during a three-week conflict in late 2008 and early 2009 in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said Jabari was identified by “precise intelligence” gathered over several months.

The Associated Press reported the attack as a “dramatic resumption of Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders.”

Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.

Critics say they invite retaliation by terrorists and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.

Dovish Israeli lawmaker Dov Hanin condemned the killing.

“Assassinating leaders is never the solution. In place of the leaders killed, other will grow, and we will only get another cycle of fire and blood,” he said.

Israeli opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff who has supported targeted killings, welcomed the strike.

“We need to continue this policy, to find them in every place,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “Israel needs to determine the agenda, not Jabari.”

Jabari began as a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, but switched his allegiance to Hamas after serving 13 years in an Israeli prison. He reportedly had survived four previous attempts by Israel to kill him. He was credited with leading the bloody 2007 takeover of Gaza from Fatah forces, developing Hamas’ military arsenal and its networks in Iran, Sudan and Lebanon and for his planning of the Shalit kidnapping.

JTA and the Associated Press contributed to this report.