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Israeli strike in Gaza Strip kills 3 top Hamas commanders

FARES AKRAM and JODI RUDORENThe New York Times

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Some 10,000 mourners on Thursday buried three senior commanders of the armed wing of Hamas who were killed in predawn airstrikes by Israel, the most significant blow to the group’s leadership since Israel’s operation in Gaza began more than six weeks ago.

 

“Oh, beloved Qassam, strike, strike Tel Aviv,” some chanted, referring to the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, as the body of Mohammed Barhoum, 45, was carried on a red stretcher to a mosque here in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. A man who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed said of the most senior of the three slain leaders, Mohammed Abu Shamalah, 41, “All Rafah loves him - all Gaza.”    

The attack, which also killed the father of a human rights advocate and at least two children, followed Israel’s assassination attempt Tuesday night on Mohammed Deif, the chief of Hamas’ military operations who has topped Israel’s most-wanted list for years. Deif’s fate remains unknown, but his wife and son were killed in the airstrike.

It was also unclear whether the back-to-back attacks on Hamas commanders indicated a shift in Israeli strategy or simply a seizing of opportunity after the men emerged from underground bunkers during the recent halt in hostilities after a month of fierce fighting that began July 8. But Israeli analysts said the targeting of such leaders had both tactical and morale-breaking ramifications for Gaza-based militants, and provided the Israeli public with a tangible achievement without drawing the world’s wrath over civilian casualties.

“It’s not that they’re not going to function, they will function, but it’s still a blow to Hamas - these people are senior people, they carry responsibilities, it’s not easy to replace them,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in Israel and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “These are more quality targets than just merely taking out junior guys. People in Gaza know exactly who they are, people in Israel know exactly who they are. In our bilateral context, it resonates strongly.”

The strikes came on the second day of renewed violence after the collapse of Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks that had halted hostilities for nearly nine days, in what many saw as a new phase of the conflict. They also followed the first direct claim of responsibility by a Hamas leader - Salah el-Aruri, who is based in Turkey - for the June 12 abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, an event that many see as one of the triggers of the Israel-Gaza escalation.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, said in a statement that the three commanders represented the “founding generation” of the Qassam Brigades, and “fed pain to the enemy for more than 20 years.”

Raed Attar, who was born in 1974, led Qassam’s Rafah brigade and was known as “the blond,” was killed along with Abu Shamalah, the chief of Qassam’s southern division whose nickname was “the fox,” and Barhoum - “the white-haired” or “the old” - who Hamas said was among Israel’s first wanted men, starting in 1992.

Attar and Abu Shamalah sat on Qassam’s elite military council, led by Deif, and were involved in the 2006 abduction of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years and later exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Attar was shown leading Shalit by the arm from a pickup truck in a video during his release in 2011.

A statement from the Israeli military said Attar had also been involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza, that he had constructed tunnels into Israeli territory, and that he had plotted attacks from the Sinai Peninsula. Abu Shamalah, the statement said, orchestrated the July 17 tunnel incursion near Kibbutz Sufa that led to Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, and was involved in a 2008 attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza that wounded 13 soldiers. He was also linked to a tunnel explosion that killed six Israeli soldiers in 2004, and to the killing in 1994 of an Israeli officer in Rafah.

“These are two senior terrorists that have been in our sights for the last 15 years,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said in an interview. “Clearly it’s part of their chain of command, it’s a part of their decision-making process, it’s a part of their force-leading capabilities, it’s a part of their motivation. I think it sends a clear message that nobody has any sort of immunity when carrying out terrorist attacks against us.”

But Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, called the attack “a big Israeli crime that will not succeed in breaking our people’s will,” adding in a statement, “Israel will pay the price.”

Barrages of rockets from Gaza continued throughout the day, most landing in southern Israel. A man was wounded by a mortar shell as he helped usher children into a shelter, Israeli officials said. About 40 of the more than 250 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza since Tuesday afternoon were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, according to Israel’s military, while most of the others hit open areas, causing little damage.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Thursday afternoon Israeli airstrikes had killed 58 people over the past two days, bringing the Palestinian death toll since the onset of the operation to nearly 2,100. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians, one a foreign laborer, have been killed.

Witnesses said a drone-fired missile killed five people as they dug a grave at the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City. Another five, three of them children, from the Rafi family, were felled while watering a garden in Gaza City, according to Ahmed Zaytonia, a neighbor, who said he found a hose still running among the flowers and trees when he ran to the spot upon hearing the strike.

Among the other reported deaths: two men in a car on Gaza City’s Al Nasser Street; a 40-year-old on a motorcycle in Khan Younis; a father and son in Beit Lahiya; and two adults in the central Gaza Strip.

Witnesses said the home where the Hamas commanders were killed, in the Tel al-Sultan neighborhood in west Rafah, was reduced to rubble by multiple bombs dropped around 3 a.m. The home belonged to the Kulab family, the witnesses said, and several other houses on the block were badly damaged.

Among the 10 people killed was Hassan Younis, 75, whose son, Issam, is the director of Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, which has been documenting the death and destruction throughout the summer. Mahmud Abu Rahma, who works at the center, called it “an Israeli criminal attack” in a Facebook post Thursday.

“Issam has been working hard to save life his way, and to comfort and support our colleagues and friends who were killed or lost family members during this ongoing crisis,” Abu Rahma said. “We are saddened as well as angered by this loss and support Issam in his ordeal.”

Many shops in Rafah closed for the funerals of the three Hamas commanders, and the police shut the streets around Al Awda mosque in the center of the city, where some mourners in the overflow crowd used Hamas and Qassam flags as prayer rugs. “This is a painful loss,” said a 39-year-old who would identify himself only as Abu Nuqira. “They are the symbols of resistance.”

Abu Shamalah’s 11-year-old daughter, Roba, barefoot and in a black head scarf, was crying as she recalled the last time she saw her father - June 28, the first day of Ramadan, when they broke their fast with a soup made from mulukhiya, a leaf also called Jew’s mallow. His friend Abu Mohammed, 55, said Abu Shamalah had told him before the war began that “he hoped to be a martyr,” and that he and Attar “lived together and we will die together.”

The fate of Deif was still unknown Thursday. It was unclear whether he was with his wife and children in the house in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza when it was flattened by five one-ton bombs. Deif is approaching 50 and sustained severe injuries in several previous Israeli assassination attempts.

A photograph purporting to be of Deif’s death certificate has appeared on social media and was reported by a Palestinian news agency Thursday, but Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza, called it a forgery. Al-Qedra initially reported Tuesday on his Facebook page that three people, including a woman and child, had been killed in the attack, but on Wednesday he removed that post and denied that Deif was among the dead.

On Thursday, a sixth body was recovered at the site, of a young girl. There were conflicting reports of whether she was another daughter of Deif, or of the Dalo family, which owned the home.

Whatever Deif’s fate, the attempt to target him has provoked a debate among military analysts in Israel over the value of a campaign to assassinate Hamas leaders.

Yossi Yehoshua, a military correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, called the attempted attack on Deif “the high point in the weekslong fighting,” in the newspaper on Thursday.

But Yossi Melman, writing in the Israeli daily Maariv, said assassinations “do not affect the balance of power in the long term.”

Israeli officials acknowledge that the Qassam Brigades expanded their rocket-manufacturing capabilities, built dozens of tunnels infiltrating Israeli territory and improved their fighting capabilities after the 2012 assassination of Ahmed Jabari, who had been running the armed wing’s day-to-day operations.

“Deif’s possible elimination will not have a decisive influence on the battle between Hamas and Israel,” Melman said. “A suitable replacement will also be found for him.”