Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in a missile strike on the Gaza Strip and launched air raids across the enclave, pushing the two sides to the brink of a new war.
The attacks on Wednesday marked the biggest escalation between Israel and Gaza fighters since a 2008-2009 conflict and came despite signs on Tuesday that neighbouring Egypt had managed to broker a truce in the enclave after a five day surge of violence.
Hamas said Ahmad Al Jabari, who ran the organisation's armed wing, Ezzedine Al-Qassam, died along with his son when their car was blown apart by an Israeli missile. Palestinians said nine people were killed, including a seven-year-old girl.
Israel's Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency and the military also confirmed the operation. "During a joint operation of the General Security Service [Shin Bet] and the IDF [army] today, Ahmed Jabari, the senior commander of the military wing of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was targeted," a statement from the Shin Bet said.
The military said Jabari "was a senior Hamas operative... directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the State of Israel in the past number of years. The purpose of this operation was to severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership, as well as its terrorist infrastructure," it said in a statement.
Military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said the strike was the start of an operation targeting armed groups in Gaza following multiple rocket attacks on southern Israel. "The IDF started an operation against terror organisations in Gaza due to the ongoing attacks against Israeli civilians," she said on her Twitter account.
Leibovich, Israeli military spokesperson, confirmed to Al Jazeera that Ahmad Jabari was targeted specifically. "The first target we targeted was Ahmad Jabari. A short time ago we completed another phase in the operation which included 20 different targets of rocket launcher pads. Israel is exercising its right to protect itself, and Jabari has a lot of Israeli blood on his hands."
She went on to say that "there are 1.5 million people in Gaza, and even though we were targeted on a daily basis, we still helped Gazans in our hospitals because we are humanitarian people. All options are on the table for us. We will do whatever necessary to protect the people of Israel." Later in the evening, the Israeli military has said it is prepared for a ground operation in Gaza "if necessary".
"All options are on the table. If necessary, the IDF (army) is ready to initiate a ground operation in Gaza," the military said on its official Twitter account. Responding to the killing, the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters would "continue the path of resistance. The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself," it said in a statement.
Calls for revenge
Jabari is said to have been the head of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. He co-ordinated much of Hamas' military capability, its military strategy, and the transformation of the military wing.
He also led the final negotiations in Cairo that concluded the prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel in 2011. The killing of Jabari sparked furious protests in Gaza City, with hundreds of members of Hamas and the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, chanting for revenge inside Shifa hospital.
Outside, armed men fired weapons into the air, and mosques throughout the city called prayers to mourn the commander's death. Al Jazeera's Nadim Baba, reporting from the attack site, said people were "very angry". “This is a residential area, and people have rushed to the site as soon as they heard the news.”
Osama Hamdan, Hamas representative in Lebanon, talking to Al Jazeera in Doha, confirmed that Ahmad Jabari's son was also killed in the targeted airstrike which killed the Hamas military chief. "We will respond [to the assassination], this I have to say clearly. The Israelis are working to target the local leaders and political leaders in Gaza. We are expecting acts and reactions from the Palestinians."
Saeb Erekat, Palestinian negotiator based in the West Bank, told Al Jazeera: "We condemn this israeli crime and assassination of Ahmad Jabari. "We are witnessing a major escalation against our people in Gaza, and it seems to me the Israeli agenda is war, not truce or a ceasefire. We hold the Israeli government responsible."
Palestinian security sources and medics confirmed a total of four air strikes across Gaza during the late afternoon, two in Gaza City, one of which killed Jabari, one in northern Gaza, and a fourth in the southern city of Khan Yunis. Wednesday's attack comes after several days worth of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip, leaving at least seven Palestinians dead and several more wounded.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, said Jabari had been a target for Israel for a long time. "This is a big loss for Hamas, and a success for Israel, who have been after him for a while." she said. “We will see an escalation for sure within the immediate future.”
“People in Gaza know him. He was considered very smart, very shrewd, considered to be a hero because he had managed until now to escape numerous assassination attempts by Israel. People will be bracing for more violence, not just against Hamas but against the civilians too.”
Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned on Tuesday that a flare-up in violence with Gaza was "not over," after Palestinian fighters fired two more rockets and Israel carried out air strikes throughout the previous night.
Barak, meeting Israeli military chiefs, said the current round of confrontations was ongoing, adding that Israel would decide how and when to respond to the rocket fire. "It is certainly not over and we will decide how and when to act if necessary," he said in remarks communicated by his office.
"We intend to reinforce the deterrence, and strengthen it, so that we are able to operate along the length of the border fence in a way that will ensure the security of all our soldiers who are serving around the Gaza Strip," he said. "At this time... it is preferable to act [in a timely fashion] rather than just talk."