Israel killed a leading Hamas military leader in an airstrike today that signalled the opening of a new offensive on Gaza.
Ahmed Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since the Israeli invasion of Gaza four years ago.
Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blamed him for in a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.
Israel said the assassination marked the beginning of an offensive and it was followed by a string of airstrikes around Gaza.
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.
Israel had warned it was considering assassinating top Hamas officials following a wave of rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Witnesses said Jabari was travelling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car exploded.
Other airstrikes then hit targets in Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah.
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 authorised to open an operation against terror targets in the Gaza Strip,” a spokeswoman said.
She said Jabari had “a lot of blood of his hands” and that the military chief authorised different targets“ as well.
Shortly after, she said Israeli aircraft targeted 20 locations in Gaza that served as storage or launching sites for rockets. Among the weapons destroyed were rockets that could hit as far as 25 miles into Israel.
Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. They argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.
Critics say the killings invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.
During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.
During that period, Israeli aircraft assassinated the previous commander of Hamas’ military wing, Salah Shehadeh, the movement’s founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and dozens of other Hamas military commanders.
The practice set off a continuous wave of criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, particularly the strike that killed Shehadeh – a one-ton bomb that killed 14 other people, most of them children.
Jabari, nicknamed Abu Mohammed, was born in 1960 in the eastern Gaza neighbourhood of Shejaiya. In 2006, he became the acting commander of the military wing of Hamas after his predecessor, Muhammad Deif, was seriously wounded in an Israeli attack.
Jabari began as a member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, but switched his allegiance to Hamas after serving 13 years in an Israeli prison.
He survived four previous attempts by Israel to kill him. In one attempt in 2004 his eldest son, his brother and three other relatives were killed.
He was credited with leading the bloody 2007 takeover of Gaza from Fatah forces, developing Hamas’s military arsenal and its networks in Iran, Sudan and Lebanon and for his planning of the Schalit kidnapping. Hamas has ruled Gaza with an iron grip since then, and repeated attempts to reconcile with Fatah have failed.