Over 40 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip overnight after an Israeli air strike killed Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), and two other PRC members earlier Friday.
Three members of Islamic Jihad were also reportedly killed in a separate Israeli air strike on Gaza. Islamic Jihad and PRC declared an end to the relative calm of recent months, and launched rockets at a series of residential areas in the South.
The attacks from Gaza left several people injured — among them, one person was seriously injured and another moderately. Initial reports said the two casualties were Thai workers, hit by rocket fire in the Eshkol region.
There were also reports of Israelis lightly injured as they ran for shelter, and at least two people were hurt in a road accident in Ashdod — when several cars crashed into each other as a missile alarm siren blared.
Israeli military sources said they were braced for a possible further escalation in the coming days.
Al-Qaissi oversaw the infiltration of terrorists from the Sinai into Israel north of Eilat last August in which eight Israelis were killed, and was planning another major infiltration attack in the coming days, military sources said.
His Hamas-linked PRC was also behind the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza for more than five years and freed in a prisoner swap last year in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians.
The attack on al-Qaissi marked the highest profile Israeli strike against the coastal strip in several months and immediately sparked retaliatory rocket attacks.
Two rockets were shot down en route to Beersheba by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which also downed two more rockets headed for Ashdod and two more headed for Gan Yavneh.
Israel’s Homefront Command placed communities adjacent to Gaza on alert. Residents were told to stay close to protected areas for fear of further fire, and festive Purim events planned for the weekend were canceled. Israeli military sources said Hamas was not directly involved in the rocket attacks on Friday evening, and that the key question regarding the days ahead was whether it would join the PRC and Islamic Jihad in firing at Israel — a development which would raise tensions still further.
The Israeli army confirmed that it had targeted al-Qaissi. The air strike tore apart his blue sedan and also killed his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini — a top PRC field commander. Some reports said Hanini was one of those freed in the Shalit deal.
Another low ranking Gaza terrorist was seriously wounded in the attack and died later.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before al-Qaissi’s vehicle burst into flames. They said the blast was so fierce that al-Qaissi’s head detached as a result.
The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the one he orchestrated in August from the Sinai peninsula that killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.
Three more Palestinians were reported killed in later Israeli air strikes. The IDF said they were about to launch further Kassam rockets into Israel. Islamic Jihad said later the three came from its ranks.
The armed wing of the PRC has been responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis is recent years and its members are among the most active rocket launchers from Gaza into Israel.
The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was also in charge of transferring funds from the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah to other groups in Gaza.
But the group is mostly known for carrying out the 2006 kidnapping of Shalit from just inside the Israeli border and holding on to him for more than five years until he was freed in a massive prisoner swap last year.
Israel’s agreement to release 1,027 Palestinians for Shalit was the most lopsided swap in the country’s history. Hundreds of those released have vowed to resume violence against Israel.
In past years, Israel has often targeted Gaza terrorists it says are preparing attacks, but tensions have been relatively calm in recent months with Israel mostly targeting smuggling tunnels from Egypt and refraining from targeting individuals. Al-Qaissi, who is also known as Abu Ibrahim, is the highest profile casualty in Gaza since his predecessor, Kamal Nairab, was killed seven months ago in similar fashion.
The military said Palestinian terrorists had fired some 50 rockets and mortar shells at Israel over the past two months, causing no casualties and little damage.
Three mortars had landed in Israeli territory prior to Friday’s strike.
Gaza terrorists later promised many more would come.
“The coward Zionists have committed an ugly crime and they know the price that they are going to pay,” said a PRC spokesman, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Mujahid.
“We call on our fighters to respond to the Zionist enemy with all our strength,” he said. “We shall avenge our leader and the response, God willing, will be equal to the size of the heinous crime.”
The Israeli military insisted it did not want an escalation but said it was “prepared to defend the residents of Israel.”
Israel said Hamas was using other groups to carry out attacks in its place and warned that Gaza’s rulers “will bear the consequences of these actions” if an escalation took place.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel for sparking a new escalation.
“The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain,” he said.
The Israeli-Gaza border has seen intermittent rocket fire before and since Operation Cast Lead, an IDF ground incursion against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007.