JERUSALEM — Israeli airstrikes killed three senior commanders of the armed wing of Hamas early Thursday in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, Israeli and Palestinian officials said, the most significant blow to the group’s leadership since Israel’s operation in Gaza began more than six weeks ago.
The attack, which also killed the father of a leading Gaza human-rights advocate, followed Israel’s assassination attempt Tuesday night on Mohammed Deif, the shadowy chief of Hamas’s military operations who has topped Israel’s most-wanted list for years. Mr. Deif’s fate remains unknown, but his wife and baby son were among those killed in the strike on a Gaza City home.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, said in a statement that the three commanders represented the “founding generation” of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, and “fed pain to the enemy for more than 20 years.” They were Mohammed Abu Shamalah, 41, head of Qassam’s southern unit; Raed al-Attar, who was born in 1974 and led the Rafah division; and Mohammed Barhoum, 45, who Hamas said was among Israel’s first wanted men, starting in 1992.
Mr. Attar and Mr. Abu Shamalah sat on Qassam’s elite military council, led by Mr. Deif, and were involved in the 2006 abduction of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years and later exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Mr. Attar was shown leading Sergeant Shalit by the arm from a pickup truck in a video during his release in 2011.
Interactive Map | Assessing the Damage and Destruction in Gaza The damage to Gaza’s infrastructure from the current conflict is already more severe than the destruction caused by either of the last two Gaza wars.
A statement from the Israeli military said Mr. Attar had been involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza, that he had constructed tunnels that infiltrated Israeli territory, and that he had designed attacks from the Sinai Peninsula. Mr. Abu Shamalah, the statement said, orchestrated the July 17 tunnel incursion near Kibbutz Sufa that led to Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, and was involved in a 2008 attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza that injured 13 soldiers. He was also linked to a tunnel explosion that killed six Israeli soldiers in 2004, and to the killing in 1994 of an Israeli officer in Rafah.
“These are two senior terrorists that have been in our sights for the last 15 years,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said in an interview. “Clearly it’s part of their chain of command, it’s a part of their decision-making process, it’s a part of their force-leading capabilities, it’s a part of their motivation. I think it sends a clear message that nobody has any sort of immunity when carrying out terrorist attacks against us.”
The strikes on Hamas commanders, in what some analysts saw as a shift in Israeli strategy, came after the collapse on Tuesday of Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks that had halted hostilities for nearly nine days.
The Israeli military said Thursday morning that 243 rockets and mortars had been fired from Gaza since Tuesday afternoon. The military said that 37 had been intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, and that most of the others had hit open areas in Israel’s south, causing little damage, though sirens had also sounded in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Around 11 a.m. Thursday, the military said, a civilian was severely injured as a dozen mortars hit a home, barn and carpentry workshop near Gaza.
Graphic | In Gaza, a Pattern of Conflict Similarities and differences in the last three major conflicts between Israel and Hamas.
Israel has carried out more than 150 airstrikes over the past two days. The strikes have killed at least 35 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
The number of Palestinians killed in the operation tops 2,000, most of them civilians, according to the Health Ministry and rights groups. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians have been killed.
Ahmed Zaytonia, 31, said five members of the Rifi family, three of them children, were killed by two drone-fired missiles as they watered a Gaza City garden on Thursday about 10 a.m. Mr. Zaytonia said he found a hose still running among the flowers and trees when he ran to the spot upon hearing the strike.
The Health Ministry said that a father and son were killed Thursday morning in Beit Lahiya, and that two other adults were killed in the central Gaza Strip overnight.
Witnesses said the home where the Hamas commanders were killed, in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood in west Rafah, was reduced to rubble by multiple bombs dropped around 3 a.m. The home belonged to the Kulab family, the witnesses said, and several other houses on the block were badly damaged.
Among the seven people killed was Hassan Younis, 75, whose son, Issam, is the director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, which has been documenting the death and destruction throughout the summer. Mahmud Abu Rahma, who works at the center, called it “an Israeli criminal attack” in a Facebook post on Thursday.
“Issam has been working hard to save life his way, and to comfort and support our colleagues and friends who were killed or lost family members during this ongoing crisis,” Mr. Abu Rahma said. “We are saddened as well as angered by this loss and support Issam in his ordeal.”
The fate of Mr. Deif was still unknown on Thursday. It was unclear whether he was with his wife and children in the house in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza when it was flattened by five one-ton bombs. Mr. Deif is approaching 50 and has suffered severe injuries after surviving several previous Israeli assassination attempts.
A photograph purporting to be of Mr. Deif’s death certificate has appeared on social media and was reported by a Palestinian news agency on Thursday, but Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, called it a forgery. Mr. Qedra initially reported on Tuesday on his Facebook page that three people, including a woman and child, had been killed in the attack on the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, but on Wednesday he removed that post and denied that Mr. Deif was among the dead.
On Thursday, the Hamas radio station in Gaza reported that another body had been recovered at the site, but did not identify it.
Whatever Mr. Deif’s fate, the attempt to target him has provoked a debate among military analysts in Israel over the value of a campaign to assassinate Hamas leaders.
Yossi Yehoshua, a military correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, called the attempted attack on Mr. Deif “the high point in the weekslong fighting,” in the newspaper on Thursday. Alex Fishman, another of Yediot’s military analysts, said it “could have created a dignified exit point from this campaign for Israel.”
“One of the most important legs in any plan to suppress a terror organization is to hit its leaders,” Mr. Fishman wrote in an article published on Thursday. “The act of assassination was meant to be part of a series of ongoing aerial actions with one goal: to exact a price from Hamas in its commanders and abilities — until it hurts, until it says ‘enough.’ ”
But Yossi Melman, writing in the Israeli daily Maariv, said assassinations “do not affect the balance of power in the long term.” Israeli officials acknowledge that the Qassam Brigades expanded their rocket-manufacturing capabilities, built dozens of tunnels infiltrating Israeli territory and improved their fighting capabilities after the 2012 assassination of Ahmed Jabari, who had been running the armed wing’s day-to-day operations.
“Deif’s possible elimination will not have a decisive influence on the battle between Hamas and Israel,” Mr. Melman said. “A suitable replacement will also be found for him.”
Fares Akram reported from Gaza.
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(via NY Times)