CAIRO/GAZA: Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned yesterday a series of Israeli strikes that killed a top Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip and urged the Jewish state to end them immediately.
“Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr condemned the series of airstrikes that Israel is currently conducting against Gaza Strip and which led to the killing of Ahmed Al-Jabari,” the statement released by Egypt’s foreign ministry said.
“He called on Israel to stop its strikes on Gaza Strip immediately,” the statement added.
The attacks marked the biggest escalation between Israel and Gaza fighters since a 2008-2009 conflict and came despite signs on Tuesday that neighboring Egypt had managed to broker a truce in the enclave after a five day surge of violence.
Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with an unnamed associate when their car was blown apart by an Israeli missile. Palestinians said nine people were killed, including a seven-year-old girl.
Video from Gaza showed the charred and mangled wreckage of a car belching flames, as emergency crews picked up what appeared to be body parts.
Israel confirmed it had carried out the attack on Jabari and warned that more strikes would follow. Reuters witnesses reported numerous explosions around Gaza, with Hamas security compounds and police stations among the targets.
“This is an operation against terror targets of different organizations in Gaza,” military spokesman Avital Leibovitch told reporters. Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio.
Hamas’ armed wing of said the strike has “opened the gates of hell.”
“The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself,” said a statement from the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, which vowed its militants would “continue the path of resistance.” Smaller groups also vowed to strike back.
“Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an urgent Arab League meeting over Israel’s aggression.
Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party said Egypt would no longer stand by as Israel attacked Palestinians. The FJP said Israeli strikes required “swift Arab and international action to stop the massacres.” Egypt “will not allow the Palestinians to be subjected to Israeli aggression, as in the past,” the party statement said.
Meanwhile, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has proposed in a policy paper “toppling” Mahmoud Abbas if a Palestinian bid for state observer status at the UN is approved later this month.
“Toppling Abu Mazen’s (Abbas’s) regime would be the only option in this case,” the position paper obtained by AFP says.
“Any other option ... would mean waving a white flag and admitting the failure of the Israeli leadership to deal with the challenge.”
The position paper is a draft document that is expected to be endorsed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who would then present it to the Israeli officials charged with formulating Israel’s response to the Palestinian bid.
The escalation in Gaza came in a week when Israel pounded Syrian artillery positions it said had fired into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights amid a civil war in Syria that has brought renewed instability to neighboring Lebanon.
Hamas has been supported by both Syria and Iran, which Israel regards as a rising threat to its own existence due to its nuclear program.
Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet said Jabari was responsible for Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, when the group ousted fighters of the Fatah movement of its great rival, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
It said Jabari instigated the attack that led to the capture of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit in a kidnap raid from Gaza in 2006. Jabari was also the man who handed Shalit over to Israel in a prisoner exchange five years after his capture.
Israel holds a general election on Jan. 22 and conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under pressure to respond firmly against Hamas, with residents of southern Israel complaining bitterly about repeated missile strikes
Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died in the 2008-2009 conflict. There was a lull in hostilities after that, but the violence has flared again in recent months and Israel has repeatedly warned of dire consequences unless Hamas and its fellow fighters stopped rocket attacks.
In the latest confrontation, which appeared to have ended on Tuesday, more than 115 missiles were fired into southern Israel from Gaza and Israeli planes launched numerous strikes. Seven Palestinians, three of them gunmen, were killed. Eight Israeli civilians were hurt by rocket fire and four soldiers wounded by an anti-tank missile.
Helped by Iran and the flourishing contraband trade through tunnels from Egypt, Gaza militias have smuggled in better weapons since the war of 2008-09, including longer-range Grad rockets and anti-tank missiles of the type they fired last week at an IDF patrol vehicle.
But Gaza’s estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters are still no match for Israel’s F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.
Israel’s shekel fell nearly one percent to a two-month low against the dollar yesterday after news of the Israeli airstrikes broke.
— With input from agencies