JERUSALEM -- Retaliating for a recent barrage of rockets fired by Gaza Strip fighters, Israel on Wednesday killed a senior Hamas military commander as he traveled by car through Gaza City, the militant group said.
Ahmed Jabari, the 52-year-old head of the Hamas military wing, and three other people in the vehicle were killed in the airstrike. Shortly after, Israeli forces also struck other targets in the seaside enclave.
The attack marked the launch of a new Israeli military assault, dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, aimed at “defending the people of Israel who have been under rocket attack and crippling terrorist organizations’ capabilities,” said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitz.
PHOTOS: Israeli forces kill Hamas' military chief
She would not say how long the operation was expected to last or whether it would include ground operations. Military officials hinted that they did not expect the assault to end quickly.
Tensions between the Israeli military and Gaza militants have been mounting for a nearly a week, following a missile attack against an Israeli jeep along the Gaza border that left four soldiers wounded.
In the ensuing back-and-forth violence, Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 150 rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel, injuring several Israeli civilians and damaging property.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced growing pressure to move aggressively to stop the attacks, which have terrorized nearly 1 million southern Israelis and crippled normal activities such as schools and businesses.
Some Israeli lawmakers and military leaders urged Netanyahu to launch another full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, similar to Operation Cast Lead, a 22-day assault than ended in January 2009.
But others warned that such an operation could lead to an international backlash and endanger Israel’s already-tenuous relations with the new Islamist-led Egyptian government. Unlike the previous regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s new leaders have voiced support for Hamas and warned Israel to restrain itself.
Many Israeli analysts predict that instead, Netanyahu would resume Israel’s policy of targeted killings of Palestinian militants and rely heavily on airstrikes to destroy rocket caches held by militants.
The strike against Jabari marked one the highest-level targeted killings in Gaza Strip in several years.
Jabari played a key role in Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and in last year’s release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel has long said that it would hold Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the coastal territory.
Hamas leaders immediately vowed to retaliate, saying the killing will take hostilities with Israel to a new level. Minutes after the airstrike, Palestinian militants fired several rockets into southern Israeli towns.