The Israeli Air Force on Wednesday launched a series of airstrikes in Gaza City, killing Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’s armed wing — the equivalent of an army’s chief of staff — and his son, Mohammed al-Homs. Palestinian sources put the death toll at up to nine by evening.
Following the airstrikes, Palestinians launched dozens of rockets at Israel, most of them targeting Beersheba and its environs. Rockets were also fired at Ashkelon, Ashdod and other cities within range of the Palestinian enclave. Two people were lightly injured in the attacks and several more treated for shock.
As of early Thursday morning, approximately 90 missiles had been fired at Israel since the strike on Jabari. Over 25 of the rockets were shot down by the Iron Dome defense system.
Residents within range of rocket fire from Gaza were requested to remain within 15 seconds of a shelter. School was called off for Thursday throughout the south, including in Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon. The police raised alert levels amid fears of terror attacks.
The army confirmed the airstrike on Jabari and said that it had launched a “widespread campaign on terror sites and operatives in the Gaza Strip, chief among them Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets.” The IDF Spokesperson’s Office told The Times of Israel that the campaign was being referred to as “Operation Pillar of Defense.”
“By nature of his position, Jabari has been responsible over the past decade for all anti-Israel terror activity emanating from the [Gaza] Strip,” the Shin Bet security agency said in a statement. Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said Jabari was identified by “precise intelligence” gathered over several months.
Hamas’s armed wing warned that in assassinating Jabari, Israel “had opened the gates of hell on itself.”
Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car was blown up. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell.
Hamas police said other airstrikes hit targets in Gaza City, Khan Younis, Beit Lahiya and Rafah. Raed Atar, the head of Hamas’s Rafah Battalion, was reportedly targeted in one of those strikes. Hamas denied reports that Atar and Marwan Issa, another leading figure in the al-Qassam Brigades, had been killed.
According to Channel 2 military correspondent Ronnie Daniel, some of the strikes were preemptive, targeting silos of Fajr missiles with a 70-kilometer range that could hit Tel Aviv. Pundits compared the strikes on the most potent Hamas missiles to the first day of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Israel took out Hezbollah’s longer-range missile sites.
Minutes after the strike on Jabari’s car, users uploaded footage of the smoldering vehicle to YouTube.
IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai confirmed that the strike was “part of our goal, to land serious blows on Hamas and other organizations. Jabari is the first target… We’ve only just started, and this isn’t the end of it. All of the options are open, and we will persist in our determination to continue to hit all of the [terror] organizations further down the line.”
Mordechai said that the IDF was prepping its ground troops for a possible incursion into the Gaza Strip, but noted that such an operation was not necessarily going to happen, and that the IDF didn’t want to turn Operation Pillar of Defense into a second Cast Lead — the winter 2008-9 assault on Hamas in Gaza that did include extensive ground operations.
Shortly after Mordechai’s announcement, the IDF issued a call-up for reservists in the Home Front Command unit.
Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovich of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office said that up to 20 terror sites in the Gaza Strip had been targeted. Hamas security officials said Hamas training facilities were among the targets in the Wednesday afternoon bombings. In all, Palestinian officials said up to nine people were killed in the Israeli attacks, and at least 15 were injured. The Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported that a 7-year-old boy was killed in a strike in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City.
Hamas spokesman Taher Nunu said the Hamas government would “call for the trial of those responsible for the crime [of killing Jaabari].” He warned that Palestinian factions had “the right to respond in a way they see fit.”
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the Israeli strikes, calling the assassination of Jabari “a major escalation against our people in Gaza… We hold the Israeli government responsible,” he told Al Jazeera.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the assassination, and called for an immediate end to Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet and updated the ministers on the latest developments in Gaza. President Shimon Peres updated US President Barack Obama on the operation, saying that Israel would handle the fallout from the assassination “with great care.”
Jabari was credited with being one of the leaders of Hamas’s violent putsch to take control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and masterminded the professionalization of the organization’s military.
Israel attempted to kill Jabari in an airstrike in 2004, but ended up killing his eldest son, his brother, and several cousins instead.
Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since Operation Cast Lead four years ago. Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list and was notorious in Israel, which blamed him for a string of attacks, including the terror infiltration which saw the capture of soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.
Despite being a stickler for personal security, Jabari personally escorted Shalit in the 2011 handover to Egyptian authorities, who then released him to Israel. Video footage from the handoff showed the Hamas leader standing behind Shalit.
Several Israeli ministers have hinted in recent days that the government was mulling a resumption of its targeted killings policy following the firing of over 160 rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip between Saturday and Tuesday.
Israel has repeatedly stated that it holds Hamas responsible for all attacks on its territory from the Gaza Strip, including those carried out by other terror factions.
On Tuesday, even as a tentative quiet seemed to be descending on the south, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that “the matter is definitely not over, and we’ll decide how and when to act when there is need to do so.”
His statement echoed remarks made by Netanyahu on Sunday.
“The IDF is operating, and will operate, forcefully against the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, which are sustaining heavy blows from the IDF,” the prime minister said in a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The world needs to understand that Israel will not sit idly by in the face of attempts to attack us. We are prepared to intensify our response.”
Although the prime minister didn’t mention any specific avenues of action, Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon was more specific. “There’s no doubt that in the past two weeks we’ve been witnessing an escalation, which Hamas is responsible for,” Ya’alon told Israel Radio on Sunday. “We aren’t going to let this stand.”
Ya’alon acknowledged that there were no easy solutions to the problem, but suggested that targeted killings of senior terror leaders had in the past brought about extended periods of calm along the Gaza border.
Still, on Tuesday, Likud Minister Benny Begin was dispatched to tell the media that the current escalation of hostility with Hamas was over — an apparent deliberate deception that may have lulled Hamas leaders like Jabari into a false sense of complacency.
Raphael Ahren and AP contributed to this report.