Israel begins broad operation against Islamic militants
Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since that war. He had long topped Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for masterminding a string of deadly attacks that including a bold, cross-border kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006. He also was believed to be a key player in Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 from a rival Palestinian faction, the Western-backed Fatah movement.
‘‘I would call him the No. 1 terrorist in the Gaza Strip, whose hands are stained with blood,’’ said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s chief military spokesman.
Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce for the past four years.
But in recent weeks, the calm has unraveled in a bout of rocket attacks out of Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel’s perspective, Hamas escalated tit-for-tat fighting in recent days with a pair of attacks: an explosion in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli military jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers.
Israeli defense officials warned earlier this week that they were considering resuming the assassination policy.
Even so, the Jabari killing, carried out in broad daylight, was shocking. Hamas officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, illustrated by Jabari’s decision to drive in public. Hamas leaders typically go into hiding at times of rising tensions. Over the past two days, the fighting had shown signs of petering out as Egyptian mediators tried to broker a truce.
The Israeli military released a black-and-white video of the airstrike, showing a sedan moving slowly along a road before going up in flames in an explosion so powerful that a large chunk of the vehicle flew high into the air.
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. Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City’s skies following other airstrikes. Ambulance sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and militants fired angrily into the air.
The Israeli military also released footage of its strikes against weapons depots and rocket-launching grounds. Barak said these airstrikes hit ‘‘terror infrastructure’’ and launchers used to fire Iranian-made Fajr rockets. The rockets, capable of reaching Tel Aviv, are among Hamas’ most powerful weapons.
The military said it hit dozens of medium-range rocket launch sites, many of which are located in residential buildings, military officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation. The military also said the navy was striking Hamas targets located by the shore. Hamas denied that any of its weapons stores were hit.
Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza. It evacuated all its security buildings and deployed its troops away from their locations.
Outside the hospital where Jabari’s body was taken, thousands of Gazans chanted ‘‘Retaliation!’’ and ‘‘We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight!’’
‘‘I was sitting on my bed with my grandson when suddenly the wall collapsed on both of our heads,’’ said Mahmoud Bana, a 62-year-old man who was slightly wounded along with his 11-year-old grandson. ‘‘We don’t know what happened but we know it is going to be a few hard days ahead.’’
In a statement, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eulogized Jabari and vowed revenge.
‘‘We mourn our late leader who walked the path of jihad while he knew the end, either victory or martyrdom,’’ Haniyeh said. ‘‘There is no fear among our people and our resistance, and we will face this vicious attack.’’
The airstrike bore many similarities to the start of Israel’s previous offensive in December 2008. That operation also began with an air raid on Hamas buildings, and also took place in between American presidential elections and Israeli parliamentary elections.
Hamas accused Netanyahu of launching Wednesday’s operation to win votes in the Jan. 22 parliamentary election. But major Israeli parties, including the dovish opposition, all lined up behind Netanyahu.
Still, the region has changed greatly over the past four years. Most critically for Israel, Egypt is now governed by Hamas’ ideological counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979. Relations, never warm, have deteriorated since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year. The assassination threatened to further damage those fraying ties.
On its official Facebook page, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, called Jabari’s assassination a ‘‘crime that requires a quick Arab and international response to stem these massacres against the besieged Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.’’Continued...