JERUSALEM—The head of Hamas’ military wing who had topped Israel’s target list for a decade and escaped several assassination attempts fell victim Wednesday to an elaborate deception.
The decision to deliver a strategic blow to Hamas took shape among Israeli leaders early in the week after the Islamic organization and other militants fired some 150 rockets at Israeli communities. One hundred rockets fell on Sunday alone.
Israeli respites from Hamas violence had become increasingly short and the rockets fired from Gaza increasingly numerous in recent months. The lives of a million residents of southern Israel living within range of Gaza’s rockets had become insufferable.
Israel’s political and military leadership decided this time to go after the approximately 10,000 rockets that Hamas and smaller military organizations are believed to have stored in the Palestinian territories, mostly underground. They also decided to try once more to get Ahmed Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing.
Six Palestinians were killed in air strikes on Sunday as they attempted to fire rockets but the remaining air strikes were directed at empty rocket launching sites. Although Israeli ministers had begun to deliver militant statements to the press these suddenly tapered off.
Israeli officials designated Minister Binyamin Begin to be interviewed on Israel Radio at a meeting of the inner cabinet Tuesday. The son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, he is both a hawk who could be expected to support strong action against Hamas and a politician who enjoys a reputation as a straight-shooter not given to evasion.
'This cycle is behind us," Begin said, but cautioned another cycle could be expected in the not distant future and Israel would then respond with appropriate force.
Israel had closed the crossing point into Gaza after the weekend’s rocketing but on Tuesday it was opened again to goods entering the strip. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew to the Golan Heights on Wednesday to see the border area where stray shells from the civil war in Syria have struck in recent days.
These actions seemed to signal an Israeli stand-down from the confrontation in Gaza. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who had kept out of sight since the weekend, appeared in public shortly before noon on Wednesday.
Several hours later Jabari, who is not usually seen in public, ventured from his hideout and entered his car with a bodyguard. An Israeli aircraft was waiting overhead. Its camera showed the car passing a bus. As it entered a broad intersection it was hit by a rocket which blew the car apart and killed its occupants.
The assassination was a signal to begin the attack on the rocket arsenals. Israeli warplanes swarmed over the strip striking some 200 targets in the next 24 hours. First priority went to the mid-distance Fajr rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Israeli officials say they believe almost all the Fajr missile arsenals have been hit.
Israeli strikes destroyed arsenals that had taken many months to build. However, thousands of shorter-range rockets remain and these are being fired into Israel in intense volleys.
Hamas operatives were stunned at both the assassination of Jabari and the targeting of the rocket storage areas, which revealed the depth to which they had been penetrated by Israeli intelligence.