AUG. 20, 2014

Israeli Strike in Gaza Hits Family of Hamas Military Commander


JERUSALEM -- Israeli airstrikes killed a wife and baby son of the top military commander of Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates the Gaza Strip, hours after rocket fire from Gaza broke a temporary cease-fire Tuesday and halted talks aimed at ending the six-week conflict collapsed in Cairo. The fate of the commander, Mohammed Deif, the target of several previous Israeli assassination attempts, remained unclear, though Palestinian officials and witnesses said his was not one of three bodies pulled Wednesday from the rubble of the bombed Gaza City home.

Mr. Deif, who is considered to be the designer of Hamas's signature Qassam rockets and the leader of its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, is a shadowy figure who was severely injured in a 2003 Israeli strike. After Mr. Deif claimed in a recorded message last month that Hamas was "winning the war," a senior Israeli minister vowed to hunt him down.

"For years, Mohammed Deif has been hiding in the tunnels underneath Gaza, and that is where he will remain because he's a dead man," Yair Lapid, Israel's finance minister and a member of its so-called security cabinet, said on July 30. Later, Mr. Lapid declared, "To Deif and his gang, I want to say clearly: Just as the United States did not rest until it found Bin Laden and eliminated him, we will find you and bring you to justice."

Israel has not killed many well-known Hamas military leaders during the air-and-ground assault on Gaza that began on July 8; most of the more than 2,000 Palestinians killed have been civilians, according to rights groups. A more limited operation in November 2012 started with the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, [1] who was Mr. Deif's deputy but actually ran the day-to-day operations of the Qassam Brigades because of Mr. Deif's injuries.

The Israeli military would not confirm whether it had targeted Mr. Deif or his family, or if there had been a change in strategy since the violence resumed.

Witnesses in Gaza said that F-16 warplanes had dropped five bombs at about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on a three-story building owned by Rabah al-Dalo, a government employee whose wife and two teenage sons were among those killed. "It was like an earthquake, earthquake," said a neighbor, Abu Fayez al-Shorafa. "Everybody went out to check what happened."

Mr. Shorafa said he had no idea whether Mr. Deif had been living in the home, a part of which other neighbors said had been rented out for more than a year. It is common practice for senior militants in Hamas to move from apartment to apartment, often rented in others' names, to avoid detection by Israeli intelligence services.

Mustafa Asfoura said his daughter Widad, 28, had married Mr. Deif, who has other wives, about four years ago, and that they had four children. The youngest, 8-month-old Ali, was killed alongside his mother on Tuesday and the other children were injured. Mr. Asfoura, 55, said he did not know where his daughter was living, that he had last seen her 10 days ago and that he had long expected her to die in such a way because she was married to "the No. 1 wanted man in Israel."

"She agreed to marry Deif, that was her choice, I can't stand against her decision," said the father, a thin man who runs a modest shoe-manufacturing workshop. He said that Widad also had three children from a previous marriage to a Hamas militant, who was killed in 2007.

"If Israel wants to kill a fighter, why would it kill women and children beside him?" Mr. Asfoura asked. "Let them kill him alone."

Though it is not clear if Mr. Deif was in the house at the time of the attack, Yaakov Peri, an Israeli minister and former head of the internal security service, said the strike "demonstrates intelligence capabilities."

"It shows that even though much has been said in the past about our inability to reach the heads of Hamas, our intelligence is indeed capable," Mr. Peri said in a radio interview. "I think that it is an important indicator of the fact that no military wing head or anyone who is a target for assassination is immune."

The Israeli strikes came after Gaza-based militants resumed rocket fire around 4 p.m. Tuesday after a nine-day break, prompting Israel to withdraw its delegation from Cairo, where talks toward a more durable truce had deadlocked. The bloody, monthlong battle has taken the lives of 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians, one a foreign farmworker.

By Wednesday afternoon, the Israeli military had counted nearly 150 rockets fired from Gaza since the collapse of the cease-fire; 94 hit Israel and 24 were intercepted. Most of the rockets were aimed at southern Israel, though a few reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where one fell in open ground around midnight, according to the Israeli military. Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel Police, said one had hit an empty house near the southern city of Ashkelon, causing damage but no injuries.

Israel conducted scores of airstrikes across Gaza overnight and into Wednesday, killing at least 19 Palestinians and wounding 120 by 3 p.m., according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Seven people, including a pregnant woman, died in an early-morning attack on the al-Louh family home in the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, health officials said; a 3-year-old was killed by a missile fired by a drone in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City; and another drone strike killed two men in their car in the north.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, declined to provide specifics about the strikes other than to say they were aimed at "Hamas terrorist infrastructure."

"The mission is ongoing," Colonel Lerner said. "It never ended. There was a break while the negotiations were ongoing." Asked about the goals of the new round of strikes, he answered, "To restore safety and security to the state of Israel."

Israel returned to a war footing on Wednesday, with large gatherings banned and some beaches, parks and camps in the south closed. Residents were warned to stay close to bomb shelters, and Mr. Rosenfeld said the police had stepped up patrols in the Tel Aviv area.

Mr. Deif, who is believed to be about 50 years old, has topped Israel's most-wanted list since at least 1996. He took over the Qassam Brigades in 2002 after its previous commander was killed by an Israeli bomb.

That same year, reports of Mr. Deif's death in an Israeli strike were debunked. He is thought to have survived five separate Israeli attempts on his life, but is believed to have lost an eye and suffered a spinal injury.

Hamas put out a public call for people to attend the funeral of Mr. Deif's wife and baby, and hundreds joined the procession in the Jabaliya refugee camp. Drones hovered overhead, Israeli airstrikes could be heard in the distance, and the white smoke and whooshes of two rockets headed into Israel from Gaza caused children to quickly drop their heads.

Mr. Asfoura emerged from his one-story home carrying the tiny body of his grandson, Ali, wrapped in a white shroud and with a white bandage on his head. Neighbors and relatives followed him to Al Kholafa mosque, while men carried Widad's body on a red stretcher. "I was waiting for a cease-fire so I could see Widad more often," wailed her mother, Um Ibrahim Asfoura, 55.

Egypt has been trying to broker a cease-fire since the first week of the conflict. Those efforts intensified in recent days but apparently failed to make real progress. Hamas, and a broader Palestinian delegation including the moderate, secular Fatah Party of the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, had demanded the reopening of all border crossings, the removal of Israeli restrictions on trade, the building of a Gaza seaport [2] and the revival of a defunct airport in the coastal territory.

Israel had called for a demilitarization of Gaza under international supervision.

People briefed on the talks have said that negotiators agreed last week to set these broader goals aside for a month and to focus an initial agreement on the reconstruction of Gaza, where thousands of homes, businesses and other properties have been destroyed. But that initial agreement never came.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, seized on the collapse of the Cairo talks to reiterate his call for a more aggressive assault to topple Hamas from Gaza.

"I hope that now it is clear to everyone that the policy of 'quiet will be answered with quiet' means that Hamas is the initiator, and that it is the one that decides when, where and how much it fires on the residents of Israel, whereas we make do with only a response that, even if it is powerful, is still just a response," Mr. Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page. "When we're talking seriously about the security of the residents of Israel, we need to understand that there isn't any option other than a resolute Israeli initiative that spells one thing -- bringing about Hamas's surrender."

But Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, blamed Israel for the breakdown, saying that country's negotiators withdrew from the talks before rockets were fired Tuesday "and did not answer to Hamas's notes and offers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel "had been given the choice between war and lull -- he selected war," Mr. Barhoum said in an interview at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "Netanyahu's government must get prepared for a battle that will be difficult and hard on the Israelis. Netanyahu and his government have only one choice: stopping the aggression, lifting the blockade, allowing the rebuilding of Gaza and accepting the demands of the resistance."

Jodi Rudoren reported from Jerusalem, and Fares Akram from Gaza.