Hamas militant chief killed in Israeli airstrikes

Columns of smoke rise following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Nov. 14, 2012. AP Photo

Updated at 5:52 p.m. ET

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israel carried out a blistering offensive of more than 20 airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, assassinating Hamas' military commander and targeting the armed group's training facilities and rocket launchers in Israel's most intense attack on the territory in nearly four years.

Israel said the airstrikes, launched in response to days of rocket fire out of Hamas-ruled Gaza, were the beginning of a broader operation against the Islamic militants codenamed "Pillar of Defense." Israeli defense officials said a ground operation was a strong possibility in the coming days though they stressed no decisions had been made and much would depend on Hamas' reaction. There were no immediate signs of extraordinary troop deployments along the border.

Gaza's health minister said 10 people were killed — two of them young children — while the Israeli military said its attack was just the beginning of a major offensive and warned it could escalate with a ground attack.

More than 65 rockets landed in southern Israel late Wednesday. One projectile struck a shopping mall in the southern city of Beersheba, causing heavy damage but no casualties, police said.

The Israeli military said 25 rockets were intercepted by the "Iron Dome" rocket-defense system. Israeli media said the rockets had been headed toward Beersheba. Israeli aircraft continued to pound Gaza into the night with some 50 airstrikes, with no reports of casualties.

In a nationwide address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns. Days of rocket fire have heavily disrupted life for some 1 million people in the region, canceling school and forcing residents to remain indoors.

"If there is a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protect our citizens," Netanyahu declared.

The killing of Ahmad Jabari marked a dramatic resumption of Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders. He 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 a string of deadly attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.

The offensive followed a weekend exchange of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel and Israeli airstrikes. Seven Palestinians were killed and several Israelis were wounded.

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 25 miles into Israel.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the operation in Gaza was far from over and that airstrikes had already inflicted heavy damage, taking out most of Hamas' long-range missile capabilities.

Hamas' military wing responded to the strike on Jabari by saying Israel "has opened the gates of hell," the Reuters news agency reports. Israeli communities near the Gaza border were bracing for retaliation, CBS Radio News correspondent Robert Berger reports from Jerusalem.

Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City's skies following at least five airstrikes there. Sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and militants fired angrily 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 burnt leg poking out.

Gaza Health Minister Dr. Mufeed Mkhallalati said a total of 10 people were killed, including Jabari, and 45 wounded, 10 of them in critical condition. Among the dead were three civilians, including an 11-month-old and a 6-year-old.

Palestinians called for harsh retaliation. Hamas, which rules Gaza, announced a state of emergency in the territory. It evacuated all its security buildings.

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

"The battle between us and the occupation is open and it will end only with the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem," he said.

Thousands of angry Gazans chanted "Retaliation" and "We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight." Otherwise, the streets of Gaza were empty as residents feared further attacks, the sounds of Israeli aircraft hovering overhead.

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 grainy, black-and-white video of the airstrike. It 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.

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."

Israel's 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. The military said the assassination was just the beginning of an operation codenamed "Pillar of Defense."

"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.

She said Jabari had "a lot of blood of his hands" and that the military chief "authorized different targets" as well.

Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents 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.

Dovish Israeli lawmaker Dov Hanin condemned the killing.

"Assassinating leaders is never the solution. In place of the leaders killed, other will grow, and we will only get another cycle of fire and blood," he said.

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.

That set off a 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.

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