Israel kills Hamas militant, announces military operation in Gaza underway

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Israel on Wednesday said it had killed a top Hamas military commander as it launched a new military operation in Gaza following several days of rocket attacks into southern Israel.

Ahmed al-Jaabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, was killed in Gaza City when his car was hit by an Israeli air strike, Israeli officials said, in what they emphasized was just the start of the military action, code-named “Operation Cloud Pillar” in Hebrew, but translated into “Pillar of Defense” in English.

“After the rocket fire of recent days, the [Israeli Defense Forces] chief of staff has decided to authorize the targeting of terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others,” IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told reporters Wednesday, Agence France Press reported. “This is the beginning.”

A Palestinian stringer on the ground in Gaza told Al Monitor that eight Palestinians had been killed, and 64 Palestinians injured since the Israeli action got underway, as of 10:30 PM local time. The stringer said at least two children were among the dead.

The Israeli Defense Forces said they had targeted Jaabari 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 New York Times reported

Witnesses earlier told the AFP  that “dozens of Israeli tanks were massed along the border east of Gaza City.”

Egypt on Wednesday withdrew its ambassador to Israel, following Israel rejecting an Egyptian request to halt the operation, an Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor.

In Washington, the State Department voiced support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and and strongly condemned the Hamas rocket attacks. “Attacking Israel on a near daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza or to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self determination,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the United States encourages Israel “to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

A Pentagon spokesman said it “was monitoring the situation closely.” US defense sources privately expressed concern that the situation could rapidly escalate, if Hamas retaliated for action it perceived as disproportionate.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days held meetings with foreign ambassadors to prepare them for the likelihood of Israeli action in Gaza.

Earlier this week, US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon held security consultations in Washington with an Israeli delegation led by his counterpart Yaakov Amidror, the White House said Monday. Donilon postponed a public appearance in Washington he was due to hold on Wednesday.

(Photo: Palestinians try to remove the remains of a car after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City November 14, 2012. An Israeli official said on Wednesday the assassination of Hamas’s top commander in the Gaza Strip was not the end of Israel’s assault on the coastal territory and more strikes would follow.  Ahmed Al-Jaabari, Hamas’s military chief, was killed when his car was hit by an Israeli airstrike. Multiple other Israeli attacks rocked the Gaza Strip. REUTERS/Ali Hassan.)