GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip
Israel carried out a blistering offensive of more than 50 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 code-named “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.
The attack came at a time when Israel seems to be under fire from all directions. Relations have been deteriorating with Egypt’s new Islamist government, Egypt’s lawless Sinai desert has become a staging ground for militant attacks on Israel, and the Syrian civil war has begun to spill over Israel’s northern border.
With at least 10 Palestinians dead, including two young children, Wednesday’s offensive was certain to set off a new round of fighting with Gaza militants, who have built up an arsenal of rockets and missiles.
It also threatened to upset Israel’s relations with neighboring Egypt and shake up the campaign for Israeli elections in January. In a preliminary response, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest.
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.
The Israeli military said it was ready, if necessary, to send ground troops into Gaza. The defense officials who said a ground operation was likely in the coming days spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military plans.
“We are at the beginning of the event, and not the end,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, in a joint appearance with the prime minister. “In the long run, I believe the operation will help strengthen the power of deterrence and to return quiet to the south.” In a sign that the operation was expected to broaden, the military was cleared to call up reserve units.
Residents in both Israel and Gaza braced for prolonged violence.
Israel declared a state of emergency in its south and canceled school across that area for today. Calling it a “special situation,” Barak sought permission to call up special reserve units for the operations. Israeli police stepped up patrols around the country, fearing that Hamas could retaliate with bombing attacks far from the reaches of Gaza.
More than 65 rockets landed in southern Israel late Wednesday.
The deadly attack on Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari marked the resumption of Israel’s policy of “targeted killings,” or assassinations of senior Hamas men.
Israel has refrained from such attacks, which have drawn international condemnations, since a fierce three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009.
Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since that war. Israeli defense officials warned earlier this week that they were considering resuming the assassination policy.
The Jabari killing, carried out in broad daylight, was shocking. Hamas officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, illustrated by Jabari’s decision to drive in public.
Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eulogized Jabari and vowed revenge.
On Wednesday night, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel’s military action in Gaza.