GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel stepped up its campaign against Gaza's ruling Hamas on Thursday, killing three of the group's senior military commanders in an airstrike that pulverized a four-story home, the second such attack targeting top leaders in two days.
The pinpoint pre-dawn attack on Hamas' inner sanctum was launched minutes after the men emerged from tunnel hideouts, a security official said – displaying the long reach of Israel's intelligence services.
The killing of the commanders, who played a key role in expanding Hamas' military capabilities in recent years, was bound to lower morale in the secretive group, but might not necessarily diminish its ability to fire rockets at Israel.
Thursday's strike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, coupled with a Cabinet decision to call up 10,000 more reserve soldiers, signaled an escalation in the Israel-Hamas war after Egyptian cease-fire efforts collapsed this week.
Since July 8, fighting has claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials and the U.N., and entire neighborhoods of Gaza have been destroyed. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a guest worker also have been killed.
Meanwhile, a senior Hamas leader in exile admitted that Hamas was behind the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank – the group's first claim of responsibility for the June attack that triggered an Israeli crackdown and eventually led to the Gaza war.
Saleh Arouri told an international conference of Islamic scholars in Turkey on Wednesday that Hamas grabbed the teens in hopes of sparking a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank.
This week's resumption of Gaza fighting came after several failed rounds of indirect talks of Israel and Hamas in Cairo.
Egyptian mediators had proposed that in exchange for quiet on the Israel-Gaza border, Israel gradually ease a border blockade it had imposed on Gaza, alongside Egypt, after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Hamas rejected the proposal, saying Israel didn't offer anything specific.
In an apparent attempt to revive diplomacy, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held talks in Qatar on Thursday with his main Palestinian rival Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader in exile.
Abbas lost control of Gaza in the Hamas takeover seven years ago, but several months ago signed a reconciliation deal with Hamas that was to give him a new foothold in the territory.
During the Cairo talks, Abbas confidants in a joint delegation with Hamas had urged the Islamic militants to accept the Egyptian offer, without success. Some in the Abbas camp had pointed fingers at Mashaal and his host and backer, Qatar.
Abbas was to head to Cairo for top-level meetings Friday.
At the United Nations, three European countries – Britain, Germany and France – were working on a Security Council resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire and international monitoring to ensure implantation, said a U.N. diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive deliberations.
The European resolution would also include a European offer to take charge of Gaza's border crossings, along with a deployment there of security forces loyal to Abbas.
Since the breakdown of the Cairo talks late Tuesday, accompanied by the violation of a temporary cease-fire by Gaza militants, cross-border violence has continued at a steady pace.
On Thursday, more than 100 rockets were fired from Gaza, while Israel carried out some 50 airstrikes, the Israeli military said.
In all, at least 26 Palestinians were killed Thursday, among them six children, bringing the death toll since July 8 to 2,086, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
Nearly a quarter of the dead – 469 – are children, according to the top UNICEF field officer in Gaza, Pernilla Ironside. Of the more than 10,400 Palestinians wounded, nearly a third were children, according to UNICEF figures, while some 100,000 Gazans have been left homeless.
In southern Israel, a man was seriously hurt Thursday, when a mortar shell fired from Gaza exploded outside a kindergarten and shrapnel flew through a window as he celebrated his son's third birthday.
In Gaza, one of those pulled from the rubble Thursday was Sara Deif, the 5-year-old daughter of Mohammed Deif, the top Hamas military leader who was apparently the target of an airstrike on a three-story home in Gaza City late Tuesday.
Deif's wife and infant son were also killed in the attack. Hamas said Deif, who has survived four previous attempts on his life, some with serious injuries, was not in the area at the time of the strike. Israel has declined comment on Deif's possible fate.
After Thursday's airstrike in Rafah, the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, announced that three senior commanders, Mohammed Abu Shamaleh, Raed Attar and Mohammed Barhoum had been killed.
Several hours later, thousands marched through Rafah in a funeral procession, firing guns, waving flags of different militant groups and chanting religious slogans. Those killed were carried aloft through the crowd on stretchers, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Israel "will not succeed in breaking the will of our people or weaken the resistance," and that Israel "will pay the price."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the Shin Bet security service and its "superior intelligence" for the strike. The killing of the Hamas leaders was bound to buy him some time as Israel's public grows impatient with the government's inability to halt rocket fire from Gaza.
Israeli media said Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon authorized the strike on the Hamas commanders in the four-story building in the Tel Sultan neighborhood of Rafah. A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the trio had entered the home just minutes earlier, emerging from underground hideouts.
"We will continue to pursue and strike the heads of Hamas at any time and any place they may be. Whoever tries to harm Israel's citizens — they are marked for death," Yaalon said.
Israel's military and the Shin Bet emphasized the importance of the three Hamas commanders.
Abu Shamaleh, 41, had been the top Hamas commander in southern Gaza, while Attar, 40, was in charge of weapons smuggling and the construction of attack tunnels, and had played a role in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. Barhoum, 45, was a senior Hamas operative in Rafah, a joint statement said.
In pinpointing the whereabouts of the Hamas commanders, Israel likely relied to some extent on local informers. Israel has maintained a network of informers despite its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, at times using blackmail or the lure of exit permits to win cooperation.
Al Majd, a website linked to the Hamas security services, said Thursday that seven suspected informers were arrested in recent days and that three were killed "after the completion of the revolutionary procedures against them."
It was the second time during the Gaza war that the website announced suspected informers had been killed by Hamas.