Massed Israeli troops poised for invasion of Gaza

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Air strike assassination of Hamas military chief signals start of major operation

Jerusalem

Israeli troops massed on the Gaza border last night, poised for a possible ground invasion as Israel launched a major military operation it said was designed “to severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership, as well as its terrorist infrastructure.”

Military sources told The Independent that a ground invasion was "a distinct possibility". The army has deployed extra infantry units near the Gaza border, halted major exercises, cancelled soldiers' leave and mobilised some reserve forces.

The opening salvo of Operation Pillar of Cloud was the pinpoint assassination by missile of the Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, as he drove through Gaza City, followed by aerial attacks against targets throughout the Hamas-controlled enclave. At least 10 Palestinians, including civilians, were reported dead.

Gaza residents ran for cover as Israeli aircraft pounded targets across the Gaza Strip. It was the most extensive assault since Israel's ill-starred ground invasion ended in January 2009.

Eyewitnesses reported widespread panic as darkness fell, with people rushing to stock up with food. Israel struck 25 separate targets, including Hamas storage sites, some of them hidden in residential buildings. Israel said it bombed stockpiles of long-range rockets – including the Iranian Fajr-5, with a range of more than 25 miles, used to devastating effect by Hezbollah in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War. Hamas warned that Israel "had opened the gates of hell upon themselves."

The Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, said last night that Operation Pillar of Defence had "taken out" most of Hamas's rockets and other infrastructure.

"Israel is not interested in engaging in war, but Hamas's provocation in the past days has made it imperative that we act sharply and decisively," he said. "The operation's goals are to deal a harsh blow to the rocket firing capabilities... It won't happen at once, but we will achieve the goals of this operation. We are at the start of the events and not at the end... In the long run, I believe this will lead to deterrence and the restoration of quiet in the south."

The IDF Spokesman, Brigadier- General Yoav Mordechai said: "Were I a Hamas operative, I would now opt to shelter underground."

Several days of tough talk by Israeli leaders and Egyptian mediation seemed to have ended a massive Palestinian rocket barrage that confined more than a million Israelis to their homes for more than three days.

Then, shortly after 3.30pm yesterday, came the Israeli strike at the heart of the shadowy Hamas armed wing.

Mr Jabari, 52, was commander of the Hamas military wing. He made a rare public appearance just over a year ago, escorting Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit – whose kidnapping he planned – to freedom, but otherwise lived like a hunted man at the top of Israel's wanted list.

He was driving with his bodyguard in Gaza City when the vehicle was torn apart by a single Israeli missile. Both men appear to have died instantly.

Hamas leaders rushed to identify Al-Jabari's body and announce his death. They threatened swift retaliation.

"The Israelis thought they could break Hamas resistance by killing al-Jabari. They are wrong. The Palestinian resistance is still strong. We will co-ordinate our reply to this crime committed by the Israelis," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "Two days ago there was a ceasefire agreement prepared through Egyptian mediation. The Israelis did not commit to it and now they will pay the price."

Palestinian officials from the rival Fatah party also denounced the killing. "We condemn in the strongest terms this new Israeli assassination which aims to initiate a bloody escalation," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. "This exposes that Israel has an agenda for war but not for peace."

In Israel, police and home-front command officers were placed on full alert as rockets began falling. Israeli vice-premier Silvan Shalom hailed Mr Jabari's killing as a fitting end for a man who had masterminded some of Hamas's bloodiest attacks against Israel. "These guys like sending other people to martyrdom, but they don't like martyrdom for themselves," Mr Shalom said.

Israeli leaders may have satisfied recent calls for a tough response to the recent violence, but they are likely to come under diplomatic fire for launching an offensive when an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire seemed to be holding after 24 hours of relative calm. The Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi recalled his ambassador to Israel in protest, while the Arab League said it would meet to discuss the situation on Sunday.

"I am responsible for us choosing the right time to exact the heaviest price, and so be it," the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told residents of Beersheba, which had been targeted by Gaza rockets, just before the assassination. "Whoever thinks they can damage the daily lives of residents of the south, and that they won't pay a heavy price for this – they are mistaken."

Israel's last ground invasion of Gaza killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, including many children and other civilians, and destroyed hundreds of homes. Even though Hamas has allowed the launching of more than 750 rockets into Israel this year alone, Israeli leaders already facing the prospect of diplomatic isolation over a Palestinian bid for UN recognition on 29 November, will be hard-pressed to maintain international support for a repeat performance.

Profile - Ahmed Al-Jabari: Commander was blamed for rocket strikes

Ahmed al-Jabari was one of Hamas's leading figures and head of its military wing.

His death yesterday was the first of a senior Hamas figure at the hands of Israel since Operation Cast Lead in 2008, when Israel launched a full-scale attack on the Gaza Strip.

He had nonetheless been at the top of the Israel Defence Forces' target list for some time. The Israelis held him responsible for the Qassam rocket strikes that have almost continually hit southern Israel – attacks that have escalated in recent days.

It is believed that Mr Jabari had responsibility for overseeing the imprisonment of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 and held until last year. The deal saw hundreds of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons.

Within hours of Mr Jabari's death yesterday, Israel's internal intelligence agency, Shin Bet, said that it had killed him.

Alistair Dawber

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor