An Israel Air Force strike on a home in the Gaza Strip on Thursday killed a senior Hamas political leader, Hamas security sources said.
Nizar Rayyan, the most senior Hamas leader to be killed in a six-day-old Gaza air offensive, ranked among among Hamas' top five decision-makers as the liaison between the group's military and political wing.
Defense officials said a one-ton bomb was used to attack Rayan's home, and that weapons stored inside set off secondary explosions.
Eighteen other people, including two of Rayan's four wives and four of his 12 children, also died, Palestinian health officials said. The Muslim faith allows men to have up to four wives.
Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding, anticipating assassination attempts by Israel. Hamas Radio said Rayan rejected the group's advice to leave his house. The military said he had a tunnel under his house that could serve as an escape route.
A lecturer at Gaza's Islamist University, Rayan, 49, had mentored suicide bombers and would sometimes go on patrol with Hamas fighters. He was known for his close ties to the group's military wing and was respected in Gaza for donning combat fatigues and personally participating in clashes against Israeli forces. He sent one of his sons on an October 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israeli settlers in Gaza.
He was also an outspoken advocate of renewing suicide bombings against Israel. Hamas said Israel would pay a "heavy price" for his death.
The IAF continued its bombing of Gaza Strip targets before dawn Thursday, hitting three government buildings in Gaza City and a number of houses in the northern Strip it said were being used to store weapons.
Hospital officials said 25 wounded were evacuated from nearby houses after the attack on the Gaza City buildings.
At around 7 P.M. Thursday, in cooperation with the Shin Bet security service, IAF warplanes bombed the home of Nabil Amarin, another senior Hamas man who served as a commander within the organization. The building that was bombed contained a large amount of ammunition and weapons. The IAF identified secondary blasts after having hit the structure, indicating the presence of bombs within it.
With a shrinking number of targets to hit from the air and top Hamas leaders deep in hiding, an Israel Defense Forces ground operation seemed all the more likely.
In fresh raids on the sixth day of hostilities, Israeli aircraft and naval forces attacked about 20 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, an IDF official said. Palestinian medical officials said three civilians were killed and 100 people wounded.
Hamas security officials said buildings housing the education and transportation ministries had been virtually destroyed. The Palestinian parliament building was also hit, they said. Gazans who ventured out of their homes walked along rubble-strewn streets to survey the destruction.
The IAF also reported Thursday that it had attacked the rocket launching squad responsible for firing the Grad which scored a direct hit on an eight-floor apartment building in Ashdod minutes before.
The military said aircraft also bombed smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, part of an ongoing attempt to cut off Hamas' last lifeline to the world outside the embattled Palestinian territory.
IAF aircrafts also went after Hamas police and their vehicles in the Gaza Strip. Two people were killed when a car was blown up.
One pre-dawn strike targeting the house of a Hamas operative in northern Gaza killed a 35-year-old woman and wounded eight people, a Gaza Health Ministry official said.
On Wednesday, The IAF said it had hit 25 terror-related targets including the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and a mosque in the city of Gaza where Hamas activists were hiding, and which had been used as a weapons storehouse.
Rockets had also been fired at Israel from the mosque.
Shin Bet security service officials said that over the last few days, Palestinian militants have been seen carrying Katyusha and Qassam rockets, as well as a large supply of other weapons, around the vicinity of the mosque. The Shin Bet said that these weapons were destroyed in the IAF strike.
Israeli aircraft pounded smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border earlier Wednesday, setting off a huge explosion in a fuel tunnel, witnesses said, as other aircraft hit Hamas positions in Gaza City.
At least six Palestinians were killed on Wednesday in the Israeli attacks including a Palestinian doctor and medic. More than 400 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Cast Lead and 1,600 have been injured.
In six days of shock-and-awe raids, IAF warplanes have carried out more than 500 sorties against Hamas targets, and helicopters have flown hundreds more combat missions, a senior Israeli military officer said on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.
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