JERUSALEM — Israel braced Wednesday for retaliation from Palestinian militants, including possible suicide bombings within the Jewish state, after killing Hamas‘ military chief in an airstrike in Gaza City.
The assassination of Ahmed el-Jaabari, a founding member of the Islamist terrorist group who topped Israel’s target list for years, marked Israel’s most significant action against Palestinian militants since its incursion into the Gaza Strip four years ago.
Israel also launched intensive air attacks on Hamas‘ military infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip, particularly underground storage areas for long-range Fajr rockets. With a range of 46 miles, the rockets are capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
“Today, we sent a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist organizations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a televised address. “If it becomes necessary, we are prepared to expand the operation.”
The United States supported the Israeli action as a right of self-defense, though President Obama asked Mr. Netanyahu to minimize civilian casualties.
“The president urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” the White House said Wednesday night. “The two agreed that Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow the situation to de-escalate.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the operation was aimed at strengthening Israel’s deterrence, damaging militant groups’ rocket-firing capabilities and stamping out attacks on southern Israel that have increased dramatically over the past month.
“Israel doesn’t want a war, but the Hamas provocation of recent weeks forced us to act sharply and decisively,” Mr. Barak said. “We are at the beginning, not end, of this action. It won’t be a quick fix.”
The attacks caused “significant damage” to the Fajr arsenal, but Israeli officials do not know whether all the missiles were destroyed, said Gen. Yoav Mordechai, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
Terrorist organizations in Gaza are thought to have 10,000 rockets capable of hitting targets up to 25 miles away, including the cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod, all of which have been hit frequently.
Schools within range of Gaza rockets will be closed as long as the Israeli military operation continues, officials said. Residents were advised to stay close to shelters.
Israeli officials stressed that the operation has no time limit. They said it is aimed at restoring Israel’s deterrence and eliminating the strategic threat from rockets of increasing range smuggled into Gaza, especially from Iran.
“Gaza has become a forward base for Iran,” said Gen. Mordechai. “The days ahead of us will not be simple.”
Israel is prepared to launch a ground incursion into Gaza if necessary, but it is now confining operations to air attacks that are “as surgical as possible,” he said.