An Israeli air strike that killed three senior Hamas commanders in the Gaza Strip on Thursday appeared to signal a strategic shift in the war on Gaza terrorism and elicited threats of revenge and more rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.
The triple assassination came less than 24 hours after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the nation that any terrorist leader is a legitimate target and “none would be immune.” The statement followed an attempted air strike on chief of the Hamas armed wing Mohammed Deif, whose outcome was uncertain.
Netanyahu praised the “outstanding intelligence” and said in a statement the Hamas leaders killed had “planned deadly attacks against Israeli civilians.”
An Israeli military spokeswoman said terrorists fired more than 45 rockets into Israel One mortar landed in a kindergarten in a southern kibbutz, badly wounding a parent of one of the children, according to Magen David Adom.
At about 9 p.m., the Iron Dome defense system intercepted a rocket near the Modi’in area, after sirens went off.
Residents of Yerushalayim reported hearing several explosions, and Iron Dome reportedly intercepted a rocket over the hills near the capital on Thursday evening.
Earlier, shortly before 8 p.m., an Iron Dome battery took down two rockets fired from Gaza toward Be’er Sheva.
In Be’er Sheva, a man was hit by a car as he ran for cover when air raid sirens sounded. MDA paramedics evacuated the man, who suffered a head injury, to Soroka Medical Center in the city.
Later, just before noon, sirens were heard in the Ramle area, not far from Ben-Gurion Airport. Police later found one rocket that landed in an open area near the city. Hamas has said it will try to disrupt air traffic with its attacks; but the airport authorities said on Thursday that Ben Gurion was operating normally.
Almost simultaneously, sirens were heard in Ashdod and Ashkelon. Four rockets landed in open area of Ashdod, causing no injury or damage, and Iron Dome shot down an additional rocket over Ashkelon.
The prime minister, who cautioned on Wednesday night that the fighting could be protracted and will require courage and determination, approved on Thursday a call-up of 10,000 army reservists. Most of them will replace soldiers who have been serving at the front for extended periods of time.
“This will be a continuous campaign,” Netanyahu told reporters.
Hamas named the men as Mohammed Abu Shammala, Raed al-Attar and Mohammed Barhoum, the three highest ranking casualties it has announced since Israel started Operation Protective Edge six weeks ago. They were the third and fourth highest priority targets on Hamas’ general staff, all of whom had led operations against Israel over the past 20 years, Hamas acknowledged on Thursday.
Three one-ton, smart bombs were dropped by IAF F-16s through a window into a structure belonging to a Hamas activist on the outskirts of Rafah.
The IDF and Shin Bet, the internal security service, confirmed it had targeted two of the men. The operation represented the combined efforts of dozens of analysts, researchers, field coordinators and operation officers over several months, and could be the most successful such assassination since Ahmed Jabari in November 2012.
Attar was believed to have been the kidnapper of Gilad Shalit. He was also considered responsible for an attack on IDF forces in an August 1st violation of a 24-hour humanitarian ceasefire, in which two soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul, Hy”d, were killed. Hamas is believed to be in possession of their bodies with the intention of using them as bargaining chips in future negotiations with Israel.
Abu Shamalah, 39, was the most senior Hamas leader in southern Gaza. He began terrorist activities in the early 1990s with Hamas military wing chief Muhammed Deif, and was directly involved in dozens of attacks on Israel, including the murder of an IDF officer in Rafah in 1994, an attack that killed six soldiers with bomb-laden tunnels in 2004, and orchestrating a bombing of the Kerem Shalom border crossing in 2008, in which booby-trapped jeeps were used. Thirteen soldiers were injured in that attack.
Ra’ad Atar, 39, was a Hamas brigade commander in southern Gaza, and the Shin Bet identified him as an architect of the Hamas offensive tunnel network in south Gaza. He served as a commander of Hamas operations in his sector, and headed attacks on the Kerem Hashalom and Sufa regions in Israel.
Atar took part in a long list of deadly attacks on IDF soldiers over the past 20 years, including an attack in July 2004 on the Israel-Egypt border that killed an IDF officer, planning and carrying out a plot to bomb an IDF post which killed four soldiers, and taking part and planning an infiltration of an IDF post near Kerem Shalom that killed four soldiers.
Barhoum, 45, dealt in arms smuggling on behalf of Hamas’ Rafah brigade. In the past, he took part in raising terrorist finances and spent years in Syria.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians marched at the funeral of the three Hamas commanders on Thursday, firing weapons into the air in anger and calling for revenge.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters, “Israel will pay the price for it.”
They tried to exact that price all Thursday, with fresh volleys of rockets and mortars.
Palestinian health officials said 26 Palestinians, including three children, the Hamas commanders and at least two other terrorists, were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Thursday.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israel’s military intelligence and head of Tel Aviv University’s INSS think tank, said Israel, which was engaged in indirect ceasefire talks with Hamas in Cairo until Tuesday, had now changed its game plan.
“The prime minister has adopted a strategy which says ‘You shoot at us, we’ll hit you seven times harder, you want attrition? We have intelligence and an air force that will crush you with greater force,” he told Israel Radio.
But this does not mean Netanyahu has adopted Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s urgings to go in and remove Hamas root and branch. The ultimate aim is not military but diplomatic.
“Even the crazy extremists in Hamas understand time is not on their side and this is what we need to do — military activity aimed at an eventual diplomatic outcome,” Yadlin said.
This week’s targeting of Hamas leaders represents a broader strategy to reassert Israeli deterrence, former Israel Navy chief V.-Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom told The Jerusalem Post.
“Just as the U.S. hit Osama bin Laden, the same fate should meet Deif, and [Hamas political wing chief Ismael] Haniyeh,” he added. Deterrence is the core of Israel’s security doctrine, Marom said, and targeting Hamas’ leadership plays a vital part in achieving this goal.
Only after Hamas is forced to accept that it cannot defeat Israel through armed conflict can negotiations succeed. Marom said.
“I’m glad the government brought the negotiators home [from Cairo]. The government should tell the army, ‘Go and achieve deterrence.’ The IDF performed very well until now, but we haven’t yet reached that goal.”
At some later point, a long-term arrangement could be achieved, and negotiations can then be held. But talking to Hamas now is very wrong,” Marom said.