Israel launched a military operation in the Gaza Strip on Wwednesday, killing Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in an airstrike and targeting weapons warehouses and long-range rocket launchers.
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Following four days of escalation on the Israel-Gaza border, Israel renewed its policy of targeted assassinations, killing the head of Hamas’ military wing. Jabari, 52, was the man behind the abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006.
Later, on Wednesday night, the security cabinet authorized the IDF to draft reserve soldiers in order to expand the Gaza operation if necessary. The forum of senior cabinet ministers also authorized the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister to decide on expanding the operation if needed, pending the approval of the security cabinet.
Hamas and Palestinian medical officials said an Israeli airstrike hit a car in Gaza City, killing Jabari and a passenger.
The Shin Bet security service confirmed it had carried out the attack, citing Jabari’s “decade-long terrorist activity” as the reason.
The IDF said in a statement that Jabari was 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.” The statement said the purpose of the attack was to “severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership as well as its terrorist infrastructure.”
Palestinians say eight people in the Gaza Strip were killed, including Jabari, and more than 30 were injured in Israeli strikes Wednesday.
At a joint press conference with Defense Minister Ehud Barak Wednesday night at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Hamas chose to escalate its attacks in recent days. We will not accept the threat of rocket fire against our citizens,” adding that airstrikes carried out by the Israel Air Force Wednesday “seriously damaged Hamas’s ability to fire long-range missiles to the center of Israel,” including to Tel Aviv. “Hamas is targeting our citizens on purpose while hiding behind Palestinian civilians,” Netanyahu said, adding, “We do everything not to harm civilians.”
The IDF hit more than 20 targets in the Gaza Strip Wednesday, including rocket warehouses and rocket-launching facilities. “In a wide-scale attack, the IDF struck the long-range missile capabilities (capable of reaching almost 40 miles) of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, severely damaging the underground launch sites and the ammunition warehouses in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF Spokesman said in a statement. “The targets were pinpointed by Israeli military intelligence information. The Gaza Strip has become a front base for Iran. The IDF will continue to attack targets that are used for carrying out terror attacks against the State of Israel.”
Netanyahu said the operation in Gaza will be broadened if it is deemed necessary in order to protect Israeli citizens.
Barak sounded a slightly more conciliatory note, saying, “We don’t want escalation, but Hamas’s provocations in the last weeks forced us to act decisively.” He said the main goals of the operation, which the IDF has dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, were to destroy the rocket infrastructure of the terror organizations in Gaza and to establish deterrence. “We managed to destroy most of the long-range Fajr rockets and other Hamas infrastructure,” Barak said at the press conference.
Even in their first statements to the media, during a security cabinet meeting Wednesday night, Netanyahu and Barak signaled that some of the goals of the operation had already been achieved as far as they were concerned.
Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed by Israel since Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, four years ago. He has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Jabari, a relative of Hamas cofounder Abdel Aziz Rantisi, was responsible for the attack on Kerem Shalom in which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and two other soldiers killed. Jabari was in charge of negotiations during Shalit’s five years in captivity.
In concert with the military operation in the Strip, Israel carried out a series of diplomatic and public-relations measures aimed at explaining the reasons and the goals of the operation to the international community, while also protecting the tense relationship between Jerusalem and Cairo. The Foreign Ministry went into semi-emergency mode, cancelling all vacations for its Jerusalem staffers.
President Shimon Peres spoke on the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama late Wednesday afternoon and updated him on the IDF operation in Gaza. “Israel does not want an escalation, but for the last five days we were under nonstop bombardment, mothers and children cannot sleep in peace at night,” Peres told Obama. “There is a limit to what Israel can withstand. Ahmed Jabari was behind many terror activities.”
Late Wednesday night, the U.S. State Department said in a statement that the United States strongly condemns the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza and regrets the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians. “We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” the statement said. “Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause.”
In a security message, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv advises American citizens in Israel to pay close attention to news reports and to follow civil defense guidance provided by the Home Front Command.
A source in the Foreign Ministry said that Israeli ambassadors throughout the world were instructed to appeal to the foreign ministries, the leaders and the various media outlets in their respective countries. They were asked to emphasize that Israel took action after a period of great restraint and after after appealing repeatedly to the international community to intervene to stop the rocket fire into Israel from Gaza. “Just last week, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, submitted three letters of complaint to the Security Council and to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon,” the Foreign Ministry source said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday called for an urgent Arab League meeting on Israel’s strikes on Gaza, Egypt’s news agency MENA said, quoting a Palestinian official in Egypt. “Barakat al-Fara, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo and the Palestinian representative in the Arab League, announced that based on instructions from President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian state had asked for an urgent meeting of the Arab League to discuss the Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip,” MENA said.
Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, tweeted the following on the Twitter online social network: “@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”
At a meeting in Be’er Sheva on Tuesday, Netanyahu told mayors of southern Israeli cities under rocket attack that it was his responsibility to choose the right time to “exact the heaviest price” for the continual rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, but he stated that Israel was not expected to undertake significant military action in Gaza at this stage or to renew assassinations of Gaza militants.