However, three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip overnight, and the death toll in Gaza from Israeli shelling rose to 16, as leaders of nearby countries warned that the escalating violence could destabilize the entire region.
Israel on Wednesday launched the most ferocious & brutal assault on Gaza in four years, Israeli forces hitting at least 20 targets in aerial attacks that killed many innocent including children and women, damaged Israel’s fragile relations with Egypt and escalated the risks of a new war in the Middle East.
The Israel Defense Forces coupled the intensity of the airstrikes with the threat of a ground invasion of Gaza, recalling its three-week operation in the winter of 2008-9, shifting infantry brigades and calling up some specialist reserves. The Israelis also warned all Hamas leaders in Gaza to stay out of sight or risk the same fate as the Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, who was killed in a pinpoint airstrike as he was riding in a car down a Gaza street.
“We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a Twitter message. Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the military spokesman, said, “If I were a senior Hamas activist, I would look for a place to hide.”
The escalation in hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the militant organization regarded by Israel as a terrorist group sworn to its destruction, prompted Egypt to recall its ambassador and demand meetings of the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League.
Israel had already been facing growing tensions with its Arab neighbors. Israel has confronted lawlessness on its border with Sinai, including cross-border attacks. It recently fired twice into Syria, which is caught in a civil war, after munitions fell in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and it has absorbed more than 750 rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel this year. The rockets have hit homes, caused injuries and frightened the population. On Saturday, Gaza militants fired an antitank missile at an Israeli Army Jeep patrolling the Israel-Gaza border, injuring four soldiers.
Both the rocket fire and the buildup of advanced weaponry in Gaza have increasingly tested Israeli officials and prompted such an intense attack, according to military experts in Israel.
“Deterrence has to be maintained,” said Gabi Siboni, a colonel in the reserves who leads the military and strategic affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “It was only a question of time until this moment arrived.”
The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said the Israeli attacks killed at least five others besides Mr. Jabari, including a baby and a 7-year-old girl, and had wounded at least 40.
The ferocity of the airstrikes provoked rage in Gaza, where Hamas said the campaign amounted to war and promised a harsh response. It quickly launched dozens of rockets into southern Israel. Several barrages struck the city of Beersheba, shattering windows and damaging cars but causing no injuries.
Civil-defense authorities in Israel, anticipating retaliation, instructed residents within a 25-mile radius of Gaza not to go to school or work on Thursday. Many remained indoors or congregated in bomb shelters.
General Mordechai said the operation “would continue and grow.” The military said it was designed to “severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership.”
By targeting Mr. Jabari, 52, the Israelis said they had killed the mastermind of virtually every attack to come from Gaza in recent years, including the kidnapping in 2006 of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Mr. Jabari was involved in the negotiations to release Mr. Shalit, whose five years as a prisoner was a source of national anguish. When he was finally released through Egypt, Mr. Jabari made a rare public appearance alongside him.
The attacks on Gaza were undertaken at a delicate time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, nine weeks before elections, and may have partly reflected his administration’s own sense that it needed to send a message of deterrence beyond Gaza. In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu praised the military for the operation and said: “We will not accept a situation in which Israeli citizens are threatened by the terror of rockets. No country would accept this.”
The Israeli journalist Barak Ravid wrote on the Haaretz Web site that Mr. Jabari was Mr. Netanyahu’s Osama bin Laden.
In Washington, the White House issued a carefully worded statement saying President Obama had spoken with both Mr. Netanyahu and President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, reiterating to both that the United States supports Israel’s right to self-defense from the rocket attacks. The statement said Mr. Obama had urged Mr. Netanyahu to “make every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” and that Mr. Obama and Mr. Morsi “had agreed on the importance of working to de-escalate the situation as quickly as possible.”
Nonetheless, the Israeli attacks further complicated Israel’s fragile relations with Egypt, where the Islamist-led government of Mr. Morsi, reversing a policy of his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, had established closer ties with Hamas and had been acting as a mediator to restore calm between Israel and Gaza-based militant groups.
In the first crisis in Israeli-Egyptian relations since Mr. Morsi came to power, he called the Israeli actions “wanton aggression on the Gaza Strip” in justifying his decision to summon home the ambassador.
Egyptian state news media said Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr had “warned Israel against the consequences of escalation and the negative reflections it may have on the security and stability of the region.”
Mr. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, rooted in the same Muslim Brotherhood origins as Hamas, posted a video on its Web site of what was described as the burned body of a Palestinian child said to have been killed in the Israeli attacks, in an attempt to stoke anger at Israel. His party also issued a statement saying: “The wanton aggression against Gaza proves that Israel has yet to realize that Egypt has changed and that the Egyptian people who revolted against oppression will not accept assaulting Gaza.”
A spokesman for Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, said the Israelis had “committed a dangerous crime and broke all redlines,” and that “the Israeli occupation will regret and pay a high price.”
Military officials in Israel, which took credit for killing Mr. Jabari, said their forces had carried out additional airstrikes in Gaza targeting what they described as “a significant number of long-range rocket sites” owned by Hamas that had stored rockets capable of reaching 25 miles into Israel. The statement said the airstrikes had dealt a “significant blow to the terror organization’s underground rocket-launching capabilities.”
The Israel Defense Forces said Mr. Jabari had been targeted because he “served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the state of Israel in the past number of years.”
A video released by the Israel Defense Forces and posted on YouTube showed an aerial view of the attack on what it identified as Mr. Jabari’s car on a Gaza street as it was targeted and instantly blown up in a pinpoint bombing. The Israel Defense Forces later posted a Twitter message showing a mug shot of Mr. Jabari overwritten by the word “eliminated.”
Mr. Jabari led Hamas forces when they took control of Gaza in 2007, ousting the rival Palestinian faction Fatah and the Palestinian Authority two years after the Israelis withdrew from the territory captured in the 1967 war.
Israeli forces went back into Gaza in the winter of 2008-9 after years of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants into Israel. The Israeli invasion killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and was widely condemned internationally.
Since then, Hamas has mostly adhered to an informal, if shaky, cease-fire and at times tried to force smaller militant groups to stick to it, too. But in recent months, under pressure from some of the Gaza population for not avenging deadly Israeli airstrikes, Hamas has claimed responsibility for participating in the firing of rockets.
Mr. Jabari once belonged to Fatah, the mainstream nationalist movement, but joined Hamas while serving time in an Israeli prison. After Hamas took over Gaza, Mr. Jabari became the architect of the Hamas military there, organizing the forces into companies, battalions and brigades, Israeli experts said.
Married to two wives and the father of 14 children, Mr. Jabari was born in eastern Gaza City. A Hamas militant who worked closely with him, and who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Dujana, described him as “extraordinarily religious, to the point of refusing to do things that are normal, like watching an unveiled anchorwoman on television.”
Abu Dujana said that he last saw Mr. Jabari last month in Mecca, where he was performing the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage.