An Israeli missile strike in the Gaza Strip killed a major Hamas political and military leader Thursday, and most of his family, as the militant group continued to launch rockets deep into Israeli territory.
The dueling strikes came amid rising international calls for an end to the bloodshed, which has killed at least 418 Palestinians and four Israelis.
The attack on Nizar Rayan, confirmed by Israeli officials, family members and Hamas, may signal a shift in Israeli tactics as the assault on Gaza enters its sixth day. After nearly a week of pounding police stations, security compounds, rocket-launching cells and cross-border tunnels, the Jewish state could be reviving its practice of assassinating Hamas leaders.
Rayan, 49, is the most senior Hamas official killed since the movement’s co-founders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantisi died in Israeli airstrikes less than a month apart in 2004, said a senior Hamas official speaking on condition of anonymity.
An Islamic scholar and university instructor, Rayan was a force in both the political and military wings of Hamas. The hulking, bearded imam was a hard-line theologian and military commander.
“This is a difficult hit for Hamas. Even they admit it,” said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman. Leibovich declined to comment on whether the strike on Rayan represented a formal return of the assassination policy.
The battle-hardened militant group has proved adept at replacing leaders, calling into question the effectiveness of the tactic. After the killings of Yassin and Rantisi, Hamas regrouped stronger than ever around a new command structure based in both Gaza and Damascus, Syria.
In January 2006, it won Palestinian parliamentary elections, defeating its bitter rival, the U.S.-backed Fatah faction. When a brief Fatah-Hamas unity government collapsed in summer 2007, Hamas fighters routed better-equipped Fatah forces in Gaza in four days and have controlled the territory since.
Despite Hamas’ demonstrated adaptability, Rayan’s death is a clear loss on multiple levels.
He was uniquely popular and respected among the military wing; unlike most of the movement’s civilian leadership, Rayan fought alongside troops in battles with Israeli soldiers and tanks.
He advocated suicide bombings, and his own son, 22, died in such an attack on an Israeli settlement.
Although most senior Hamas leaders went into hiding when the Israeli air barrages began, Rayan made a point of living openly in his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp. He encouraged other leaders to follow suit.
“He refused to leave his house; he preferred to be a martyr,” the Hamas official said.
Thirteen members of Rayan’s family, including all four of his wives, were also killed in the strike, his teenage son Baraa told The Times.
Two more children are missing and presumed buried under the rubble of their family home.
“We are patient and we are committed to the resistance,” said Baraa.
Meanwhile, Israeli tanks and thousands of soldiers remain massed on the Gaza border Thursday awaiting an order to invade the densely populated and fortified coastal territory, with about 1.5 million people in 140 square miles.
In the face of mounting international calls for an end to the campaign, Israeli officials defended the operation as necessary to bring an end to the daily rocket launches from Gaza that threaten a widening swath of southern Israel.
“Hamas understands that Israel has changed the equation,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before leaving for Paris to consult with French officials. “The situation in which they shoot and we do not respond is over.”
Livni’s French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, has proposed a 48-hour halt in the fighting to allow delivery of humanitarian relief and give time for international mediators to work out a long-term truce.
Livni and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have both dismissed the proposal as premature and said the offensive would continue until its goals were met.
“We did not go into the Gaza operation only to end it while rocket fire continues,” Olmert said Wednesday at a special Cabinet session.
Israeli aircraft have flown an estimated 500 sorties over Gaza since Saturday, including 50 Thursday.
Despite the steady pounding, fighters from Hamas’ Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade and smaller Palestinian militias continue to launch dozens of rockets into southern Israel each day. A Grad rocket heavily damaged an eight-story apartment building in the coastal city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of Gaza, causing police to evacuate residents for fear of a collapse.
“I heard the explosions when I was standing in the hall for protection. I was holding my nephew, who was scared. Suddenly, in a few seconds, all of the police and firemen were in the building,” said resident Rachel Mor, 25.
“If they attack us, we should attack them. It’s only logical.”
Ashdod was outside the range of Gazan rocket launches until recently.
The steadily increasing range of the attacks has Israelis worried that the outskirts of Tel Aviv, about 15 miles north of Ashdod, could soon come under fire.
Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog said Thursday that 900,000 Israelis were now within rocket range.
With Palestinian public anger running high over the mounting casualties, Israeli officials were bracing for unrest today.
The Israeli government announced the closure of border crossings in the occupied West Bank starting Thursday night and ending Saturday night. For Friday prayers at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, no men younger than 50 were to be permitted on the Temple Mount.
Burai is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City, Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau and Times staff writer Carolyn Cole contributed to this report.