The attack came despite signs that Egypt had managed to broker a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants after a five day surge of violence which saw more than 100 missiles fired out of Gaza and repeated Israeli strikes on the enclave.
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Islamist Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization's armed wing, the Izz al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, died along with his son after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile.
"The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself," Hamas' armed wing said following the targeted killing of its commander.
Top Hamas terrorist Ismail al-Ashkar said, "The resistance's options are now open and they include suicide attacks and quality attacks in Israel cities."
The IDF said Jabari's assassination marks the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza terrorists.
As part of the operation, Israeli aircraft struck at least 20 rocket-launching pads belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Dozens of long-range rockets were destroyed, including Fajr-5 missiles. The destroyed rockets and missiles had a range of more than 40 kilometers.
The aerial strikes were accompanied by IDF tank fire at terror sites in Gaza. AFP reported that at least six Palestinians were killed in no less than 20 Israeli strikes in Gaza.
According to reports in Gaza, Israel also tried to kill Ra'ad al-Atar, another senior Izz al-Din al-Qassam commander. He apparently survived. The Palestinians reported that Israel attacked another top terrorist, but they did not release his name or say if he was killed in the strike.
Meanwhile, the IDF has decided to deploy additional infantry units in the south ahead of a possible ground offensive in Gaza. In addition, large IDF exercises have been halted and reserve soldiers have been called up.
Israel's Shin Bet domestic intelligence service confirmed it had carried out the attack on Jabari with the Air Force because of his "decade-long terrorist activity."
News agencies reported of additional attacks throughout Gaza. According to the reports, one of the strikes injured another senior Hamas commander.
At around 5 pm, shortly after the hit in Gaza, at least two rockets were fired toward the Ashkelon Beach Regional Council. The rockets' landing sites have yet to be located.
Scene of attack in Gaza
IDF spokesman Yoav Mordechai said the airstrike indicated the beginning of a campaign to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror organizations in Gaza.
"The first aim of this operation is to bring back quiet to southern Israel, and the second target is to strike at terror organizations," Mordechai said.
"The purpose of this operation was to severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership," the Israeli military said in a statement.
'Gates of hell are open.' Scene of Jabari hit (Photo: AFP)
"(Jabari's) killing sends a message to Hamas elements in Gaza that if they continue to promote terror activity against the State of Israel – they will be terminated," the IDF said in a statement.
The spokesman told Ynet that the strikes in Gaza caused severe damage to Hamas' ability to fire long-range missiles, adding that the attacks will continue in the coming hours and will target rocket-launchers aimed at Israel's southern region.
Jabari's car after strike (Photo: AFP)
"By continuously smuggling weapons, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have turned Gaza into a frontline Iranian outpost," he said.
Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio and smaller groups also warned of retaliation.
"Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences," Islamic Jihad said.
Israel is also operating on the diplomatic front. Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor filed his third complaint with the Security Council in the past three days following the continued rocket fire on Israel. "No country can accept terror attacks on its cities and citizens.
"The international community must realize that Israel will protect its citizens at all costs," he wrote.
Hamas has governed Gaza since 2007 and does not recognize Israel's right to exist. It has been emboldened by the rise to power in neighboring Egypt of its spiritual mentors in the Muslim Brotherhood whom it views as a "safety net."
Israel last staged a full-scale attack on Gaza during a three week conflict in 2008 and 2009 in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said Jabari was identified by "precise intelligence" gathered over several months.
Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.
Critics say they invite retaliation by terrorists and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.
During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.
Israeli aircraft have previously assassinated the previous commander of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh, the movement's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and dozens of other senior Hamas military commanders.
Neri Brenner, Reuters, AP contributed to the report
You can contact Elior Levy, Ynet's Palestinian Affairs Correspondent, at: email@example.com