In a strong signal that eliminating Palestinian militant commanders has become Israel's top priority in this new phase of fighting in the Gaza Strip, three senior Hamas commanders and two with the smaller group Islamic Jihad were killed in airstrikes Thursday, according to officials and media reports.
The latest strikes in Gaza appeared to be in keeping with a tactical shift on the part of Israel, which until this week had mainly targeted infrastructure such as infiltration tunnels and rocket-launching sites.
FOR THE RECORD:
Gaza Strip: An article in the Aug. 21 A section said that more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians had been killed in the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Figures from the United Nations indicate that more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed, but the number who were civilians was less than 2,000. —
That changed Tuesday, when the Israeli force tried to assassinate Hamas' top military commander, killing his wife and infant son in the process. Hamas said the commander, Mohammed Deif, was not present at the time, but some Israeli news reports cast doubt on that statement.
Thursday marked a third day of renewed hostilities in Gaza after two weeks of relative calm, during which the two sides had for the most part observed a series of temporary cease-fires while holding indirect talks in Cairo. The negotiations collapsed along with the respite; there was no word on whether those talks would resume. Egypt has been talking separately with both sides.
Hamas said in a brief announcement that its three men killed Thursday in the battered southern Gaza town of Rafah were senior members of its military wing, identifying them as Mohammed abu Shamaleh, Raed Attar and Mohammed Barhoum.
Witnesses said Israeli warplanes fired a volley of missiles that leveled a five-story building in the Tel Sultan neighborhood. Palestinian health officials said at least seven other people were killed in the strike. Thousands of angry, chanting Palestinians marched in the funeral processions, demanding vengeance against Israel.
The Israeli military later confirmed that the three Hamas commanders were specifically targeted. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the strike sent "a clear message to those responsible for planning attacks" against Israel.
Later, a strike hit two suspected members of Islamic Jihad's rocket squad as they rode on a motorbike in Rafah, Israeli news reports said. Palestinian officials said that attack also killed a third person.
The three slain Hamas men were senior members of Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade's command structure. Attar was the local commander in Rafah and was believed to have overseen the building of a network of tunnels in the area and the smuggling of weapons from Egypt. Abu Shamaleh was a commander in southern Gaza, and Israel says he and Attar masterminded the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held prisoner in Gaza for five years before being freed in 2011 as part of a large-scale prisoner exchange.
Attar was years ago sentenced to death by the Palestinian Authority for killing a police officer, but that sentence was commuted by the late Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.
The death toll in Gaza since fighting broke out July 8 is now well above 2,000 Palestinian, but the number who were civilians was less than 2,000. Sixty-seven people have died on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.