JERUSALEM — Israeli airstrikes killed three top commanders of Hamas’ armed wing in Gaza on Thursday, dealing the most significant blow to the group’s military leadership in six weeks of fighting.
Gaza-based militants responded with more rocket fire directed at Israel, as thousands of Hamas supporters poured into the streets in the largest funeral processions of the conflict. The mourners waved Hamas flags and hailed the three commanders as martyrs. The Islamist militant group’s leaders continued to threaten and mock Israel.
Both sides said the war could enter a new phase, with the Hamas leadership in Israel’s cross hairs. Such a scenario could bring a weakened Hamas back to cease-fire talks or lead to more rocket fire on Israeli population centers.
Until Thursday, Israel had failed to hit senior Hamas leaders, instead boasting of killing 900 unnamed “terrorists.” Israeli military officials and defense analysts say Israel either did not have the intelligence to strike at the Hamas leadership or the will to do so, or that it feared the collateral damage would be too high.
But the fight has become more personal as the conflict grinds on with no diplomatic solution in sight after Israeli and Palestinian negotiators abandoned talks in Cairo this week. U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have remained mostly in the shadows. The war and the unsuccessful truce attempts have strained Israel’s close relationship with Washington and left some Obama administration officials fuming. Mr. Kerry led a fruitless week-long push for a cease-fire late last month that some U.S. officials privately accused Israel of sabotaging with a premature Cabinet vote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, did not disguise his irritation at U.S. criticism of Israel’s prosecution of the war, however mild. Both sides have sought to repair the damage, including with a visit to Washington this week by Israel’s deputy foreign minister. Tzahi Hanegbi sought to play down the division as a family quarrel that would quickly pass. “We are on the same frequency,” he said.
Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday praised Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, for “the extraordinary intelligence gathered” that led to the killing of the Hamas commanders. Mr. Netanyahu also thanked the Israeli military for its “precise execution capabilities.” A day earlier, he had said all combatants in the Palestinian militant factions were legitimate targets, and that “no Hamas member is immune.”
With the conflict showing little sign of winding down, Israel’s Defense Ministry requested permission to call up an additional 10,000 reservists to move south toward Gaza. “There is no doubt, here’s a new phase, a new policy for Israel,” said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. Mr. Ganor said the targeted killings were “the most significant blow to Hamas in the last few weeks of conflict.”
Officials in Gaza confirmed the deaths of the Hamas commanders, whose bodies were pulled from the ruins of a building in Rafah in southern Gaza. The killings came just a day after an assassination attempt on Mohammed Deif, the top commander of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. Hamas leaders had mocked Israel for failing to kill Mr. Deif, although Israeli military analysts suggest that it is possible that Hamas has withheld information on his death to maintain morale.
The Qassam Brigades said in a statement that Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Attar and Mohammed Barhoum were killed in Rafah’s al-Sultan neighborhood. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the killings “a despicable crime for which Israel will pay dearly.” He vowed that “the strike won’t break the resistance of the Palestinian people,” according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Gaza Health Ministry officials said five civilians also were killed in the attack and at least 40 injured.
Shin Bet said Mr. Abu Shamala was the most senior commander in southern Gaza and was responsible for tunnel construction there. The agency also said he was involved in a 2006 attack near the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza that ended with the deaths of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third, Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years before being released in 2011 in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The targeted killings are “a clear message from Israel to Hamas that we can reach all of you,” said Avi Melamed, a fellow at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington and a former senior Israeli intelligence officer. Mr. Melamed said the intelligence used to target the three commanders signals to Hamas that “there is a leak in its system somewhere, a system that until now was tight and compartmentalized.”
A senior Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said the three killings did not mark a change in strategy, and that Hamas leaders were targeted from the beginning. The three commanders “were in senior positions within the Hamas terror structure,” Col. Lerner said. “The message we are sending here is that it does not pay to carry out acts of terrorism against Israel, and if you do, then you will pay a price,” he added.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, said Hamas cannot win a war of attrition. “Israel is saying, ‘You want attrition? You are welcome,‘ “ said Mr. Yadlin, now director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “Our firepower, our intelligence and our capability to sustain are bigger than yours.”
Gaza Health Ministry officials said 26 Palestinians were killed Thursday in Israeli attacks. More than 2,075 people in Gaza have been killed in the conflict, the officials said. The fighting has also claimed the lives of 67 Israelis, all but three of them soldiers.israel - United States military - United States government - Middle East - John Kerry - Palestinian territories - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Hamas - Gilad Shalit