Hamas, which dominates Gaza, named the men as Mohammed Abu
Shammala, Raed al-Attar and Mohammed Barhoum and said they were
killed in the bombing of a house in the southern town of Rafah. All
three were described as senior Hamas military figures.
The Israeli military and Shin Bet, the internal security service,
confirmed that two of the men were targeted, in what would
constitute the killing of the most senior Hamas leaders since Israel
launched its offensive in Gaza on July 8.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the "outstanding
intelligence" and said in a statement the Hamas leaders "planned
deadly attacks against Israeli civilians".
After six weeks of conflict in which more than 2,000 Palestinians
have been killed, most of them civilians, Israeli air strikes since
a 10-day ceasefire collapsed on Tuesday appear to have been focused
more intently on Hamas's armed wing.
Late on Tuesday, the Israeli air force bombed a house in northern
Gaza, an attempt, Hamas said, to assassinate Mohammed Deif, its top
military commander. Deif's wife and seven-month-old son were killed
but Deif escaped, Hamas said.
After Thursday's air strike, hundreds of Palestinians rushed to the
site in southern Gaza calling for revenge.
"The assassinations of the three Qassam leaders is a grave crime,"
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters. "But it will not break
our people and Israel will pay the price for it."
Shin Bet said Abu Shammala was head of Hamas's southern command and
described al-Attar as a brigade commander. It said both had been
leading and coordinating fighting against Israel in the south of
Gaza, where some of the most intense combat has occurred. Israel has
lost 64 soldiers in the conflict, while three civilians in Israel
have also been killed.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu declined to say whether
Deif had been targeted, but said militant leaders were legitimate
targets and that "none are immune" from attack.
NO END IN SIGHT
Israel launched its offensive last month with the declared aim of
curbing Palestinian rocket fire into its territory.
After nearly four weeks of conflict, including ground operations by
Israeli forces, Egyptian mediators succeeded in brokering a truce.
But after 10 days of relative calm, that ceasefire was shattered on
Tuesday, when Hamas launched more than 200 rockets into Israel,
leading to Israeli air strikes.
Rocket fire from Gaza continued on Thursday, with several landing in
a kibbutz close to the border. Shrapnel from the blast seriously
injured one Israeli and narrowly missed a kindergarten, Israel's
ambulance service said.
Egypt said it would continue contacts with both sides, whose
delegates left Cairo after hostilities resumed. Yet there appears to
be little chance in the current circumstances of putting an end to
fighting and making progress on peace talks.
Netanyahu said fighting could go on for a long while.
"This will be a continuous campaign," he told reporters.
[to top of second column]
When it launched its initial assault, Israel said the aim was to put
an end to Hamas rocket fire. Ten days later it sent ground forces in
to destroy cross-border tunnels used by Hamas militants to launch
surprise attacks on Israelis.
More than 30 of those tunnels have been destroyed and no
tunnel-based attacks have taken place in the past 10 days. Israel
pulled its ground troops out of Gaza on Aug. 5.
As well as the Hamas commanders killed, Palestinian medics reported
19 other deaths on Thursday, including three children.
Hamas's military wing has threatened to target Israel's Ben-Gurion
International Airport and warned airlines to stay away on Thursday
morning. Hamas said it had fired a rocket towards the airport, but
an Israeli airport spokesman said there were no disruptions reported
to Thursday's flight schedules.
Israel says its main gateway is protected against Hamas's inaccurate
rockets, many of which have been shot down by the Iron Dome missile
Hamas has said it will keep up its fight against Israel until the
Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip is lifted. Both
countries view Hamas as a security threat and are reluctant to make
sweeping concessions without Hamas downing its arms.
The Egyptian-led peace talks had looked to be making some progress
towards a relaxation of the blockade, but Israel wanted guarantees
no weapons would enter the territory.
Israel says it has killed hundreds of frontline Gaza militants in
its campaign. The commanders targeted on Thursday were the most
senior Hamas men killed since November 2012, when the assassination
of military chief Ahmed al-Jaabari triggered an eight-day
According to Shin Bet, Abu Shammala and al-Attar, were among those
who planned and led the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad
Shalit, who was held in Gaza for five years until his release in
return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Luke Baker)
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