Israel assassinated a Hamas strongman today by dropping a one-ton bomb on his house, also killing two of his wives and four of his children.
This first assault on the top leadership of Gaza’s ruling group escalated a crushing aerial offensive as Israel declared itself ready to launch a ground invasion.
While turning up the heat on the battlefield, Israel appeared to be sounding out a possible diplomatic exit from its campaign, demanding international monitors as a key term of any future truce with Gaza militants.
The operation is meant to crush Gaza militants who have been terrorising southern Israel with increasingly menacing rocket fire.
In mounting the campaign last Saturday, Israel made it clear no one in Hamas was immune, and the air attack that flattened the four-storey apartment building in the northern town of Jebaliya where Nizar Rayan lived drove that message home.
The airstrike demolished the building, sent a thick plume of smoke into the air, and heavily damaged neighbouring buildings.
Eleven other people, including two of Rayan’s four wives and four of his 12 children, also died, Palestinian health officials said. The Muslim faith allows men to have up to four wives.
Hamas leaders went into hiding before Israel launched its operation, but Rayan was known for openly defying Israel, and the army said he had a tunnel under his house that could serve as an escape route.
“We are trying to hit everybody who is a leader of the organisation, and today we hit one of their leaders,” Israeli vice-premier Haim Ramon said in a television interview.
The 49-year-old Rayan ranked among Hamas’ top five decision-makers. A professor of Islamic law, he was known for his close ties to the group’s military wing and was respected in Gaza for donning combat fatigues and personally participating in clashes against Israeli forces.
He sent one of his sons on an October 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israeli settlers in Gaza.
Israeli Defence officials said a one-ton bomb was used to attack Rayan’s home, and that weapons stored inside set off secondary explosions.
More than 400 Gazans have been killed and some 1,700 wounded since Israel embarked on its aerial campaign, Gaza health officials said. The UN says the Gaza death toll includes more than 60 civilians, 34 of them children. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have died in rocket attacks that have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing one-eighth of its population within rocket range.
Israel launched the offensive last Saturday after more than a week of intense Palestinian rocket fire that followed the expiration of a six-month truce.
Military spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovich said preparations for a ground operation were complete.
“The infantry, the artillery and other forces are ready. They’re around the Gaza Strip, waiting for any calls to go inside,” he said.
Thousands of soldiers were massed along the border with Gaza today, backed by tanks and artillery.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a meeting of mayors of southern Israeli communities today that Israel would not shy away from using its military power.
“We don’t want to display our might, but we will employ it if necessary,” he said.
Hamas threatened to take revenge against Israeli land forces should they re-enter Gaza.
“We are waiting for you to enter Gaza to kill you or make you into Schalits,” Hamas said. Israeli Sergeant Gilad Schalit was seized in a cross-border raid by Hamas-affiliated militants 2.5 years ago and remains in captivity in Gaza.
Israel’s bruising campaign has not deterred assaults on Israel. According to the military, rocket squads fired more than 30 rockets by late afternoon today. No injuries were reported, but an eight-storey building in Ashdod, 23 miles from Gaza, was hit.
Earlier this week, Olmert rebuffed a French proposal for a two-day suspension of hostilities. But at the same time, he seemed to be looking for a diplomatic way out, telling US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other world leaders Israel would not agree to a truce unless international monitors took responsibility for enforcing it.
International intervention helped Israel to accept a truce that ended its 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, when the UN agreed to station peacekeepers to enforce the terms. This time, Israel is not seeking a peacekeeping force, but a monitoring body that would judge compliance on both sides.
Gaza has been under Hamas rule since the militant group overran it in June 2007; the West Bank has remained under the control of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been negotiating peace with Israel for more than a year but has no influence over Hamas.
Bringing in monitors would require cooperation between the fierce rivals.
An Abbas confidant said the Palestinian president supported the notion of international involvement. “We are asking for a ceasefire and an international presence to monitor Israel’s commitment to it,” Nabil Abu Rdeneh said.