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November 14, 2012

Israeli airstrike kills Hamas militant chief

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike killed the commander of the Hamas military wing in Gaza Wednesday and Israel pounded dozens of targets in Gaza in the most intense attack since an Israeli offensive four years ago.

The killing of Ahmad Jabari marked a dramatic resumption of Israel’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders and the Israeli military said it was the beginning of a major offensive codenamed “Pillar of Defense.”

Palestinians called for harsh retaliation. The airstrikes came after a weekend exchange of Gaza rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes appeared to have abated. The Israeli offensive was likely to re-ignite the conflict.

A string of airstrikes around Gaza followed. The military said its aircraft targeted more than 20 facilities that served as storage or launching sites for rockets. Among the weapons destroyed were rockets that could hit as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) into Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting with his senior Security Cabinet after sundown Wednesday, officials said.

Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza. It evacuated all its security buildings and deployed its troops in Gaza away from their locations.

Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since the last war in Gaza ended in early 2009. He has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for in a string of deadly attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.

In addition to Jabari, eight other people were killed in the strikes. Of the nine, three were confirmed as militants, two were children and the identity of others had yet to be determined, said Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra. Also, 30 people were wounded.

On its Twitter feed, the Israeli military said it 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.

In a radio interview, the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said “at this stage” there are no plans for a ground offensive. “We’re focusing on an air operation,” he said.

Outside the hospital where Jabari’s body was taken, Hamas official Khalil al-Haya eulogized Jabari and threatened Israel.

“The battle between us and the occupation is open and it will end only with the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem,” an emotional al-Haya said.

Thousands of angry Gazans chanted “retaliation” and “we want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight.”

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 of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell.

The Israeli military released a black and white video of the airstrike. The grainy video shows a sedan moving slowly along a road before exploding in a powerful blast that sent a large piece of the car flying into the air.

Hamas police cordoned off the area around a hospital where at least one body from the strike was taken. It was draped in a white sheet, with a burned leg poking out.

Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City’s skies following at least five airstrikes. Ambulance sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and militants fired angrily into the air.

Fearing a long war in Gaza, Palestinians rushed to buy fuel, bread and other food supplies.

“We are working under fire to protect our people and to back the resistance,” said Islam Shahwan, a Hamas interior ministry spokesman. “We have a full emergency plan that we are adopting now.”

The Israeli military said the assassination was just the beginning.

“After a couple of days on ongoing rocket attacks toward Israeli civilians the (Israeli military) chief of staff has authorized to open an operation against terror targets in the Gaza Strip,”  military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch said.

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