Israel killed 18 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including nine members of one family, in an air strike that destroyed a house where top Hamas commanders were believed to be meeting.
The air raid was among a series of attacks that coincided with an armored sweep into central Gaza, as Israel broadened an offensive aimed at freeing captured soldier Gilad Shalit and halting cross-border rocket fire.
Israel’s military said the strike on a three-storey building near Gaza City wounded Mohammad Deif, leader of the governing Hamas movement’s armed wing. The Hamas armed wing denied Deif had been hurt and vowed a “painful” response.
The air strike killed a local Hamas leader, Nabil Abu Selmeya, his wife and seven sons and daughters aged 7 to 19, medics said. Selmeya’s eldest son, who was not at home, survived.
Later on sources in Gaza reported that five Palestinians were killed in two separate IAF attacks. The IDF said the attacks targeted against eight gunmen, but according to Palestinians sources those killed were citizens attempting to take a detour around IDF roadblocks.
On Israel’s northern border, the Lebanese guerrilla group Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed up to seven Israelis in violence further inflaming Middle East tensions.
Palestinian militant groups in Gaza and the occupied West Bank welcomed the latest abductions. Islamic Jihad activists distributed sweets to passersby in Gaza’s streets to celebrate.
Israel’s army said Deif had been in the residential building in Gaza and was targeted because intelligence information showed he and other senior Hamas commanders were planning attacks.
“We know he was injured, but not to what degree,” said an army spokeswoman.
Hamas’ Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades was one of three groups whose kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit on June 25 led Israel to launch its first ground operations in Gaza since quitting the territory last year.
Deif, in his 40s and who is rarely seen in public, has escaped several Israeli assassination attempts. Those close calls have turned him into a folk hero to many Palestinians.
‘Innocent people as human shields’
“Israel will pay for daring to hunt the lion of Qassam,” said one Hamas activist who gave his name as Ahmed, speaking near the wrecked building, a tangle of twisted metal, broken concrete and blood. Using bare hands, rescuers dug through the rubble.
“Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest),” one youth screamed from under debris as hundreds of onlookers echoed the call. Rescuers later pulled him out and he was rushed to hospital.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the Qassam brigades, denied Israel’s most wanted man had been wounded. He declined to say whether Deif was there at the time.
In its new incursion, the army sent dozens of armored vehicles into central Gaza before dawn, effectively cutting the territory in two.
Israel has vowed to continue the operation, which has killed 74 Palestinians, until militants free Shalit and stop launching makeshift rockets over the border.
The scene at the bombed Gaza building recalled Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Salah Shehada in 2002 by dropping a one-tone bomb on his home. The death of 14 other people in that attack drew a wave of international criticism.
Israeli cabinet minister Haim Ramon said while Israel regretted any civilian casualties, Palestinian militants “Were using innocent people as human shields.”