GAZA (Reuters) â€” Israel escalated its strikes against Gaza fighters on Sunday, killing eight Palestinians in an aerial assault that struck the home of a promiment Hamas politician, medics and a source in the Islamist group said.
It was the first time in many months Israel appeared to have targeted a figure regarded as a politician of the Islamist group that rose to power a year ago but has been shunned by the West for refusing to recognise the Jewish state.
The attack punched a hole into the porch of the home of Khalil Al Hayya, a senior Hamas lawmaker, in Gaza City’s Sejaiyeh quarter, as family members and relatives gathered.
Hayya was not there at the time and was safe.
Hamas’ armed wing said six of those killed were civilians and two others were fighters. A dozen or so other people were also wounded by the blast.
An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there had been an air strike in Gaza, but denied Hayya’s home had been targeted.
“There was an air strike against a group of armed Hamas men,” the spokeswoman said.
Israel’s army radio described Hayya as a senior member of the group’s military wing that orchestrates rocket attacks against Israel. The group denied that Hayya was a member of its armed wing.
Hundreds of supporters surrounded Hayya later as he visited the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. Many punched bloodied fists into the air and shouted for revenge. “It is a long march and I’m only a sacrifice for the people,” Hayya said.
Hamas’ armed wing vowed its “response will be like an earthquake” and its fighters launched more rockets at Israel, hitting several places but causing no casualties.
Tank gunners enter the fray
Israeli tank gunners responded by firing several volleys at additional targets in Gaza, including the home of a Hamas fighter in Beit Lahiya, wounding him and four of his children, Palestinian security sources and medics said.
The Israeli army had no immediate comment.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier his security Cabinet had decided to step up strikes against resistance leaders involved in rocket attacks against southern Israel, stopping short of ordering a wider offensive in the coastal strip.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned both the decision and the ensuing Israeli attacks.
“This escalation will lead the Middle East to more violence and instability,” the aide, Nabil Abu Rudeinah, said.
Ministers had resolved to “intensify operational steps… by striking at terrorist infrastructure and those who operate the Qassam attacks,” Olmert told reporters, using Hamas’ name for the makeshift rockets.
Olmert said military operations would focus on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters whom he accused of being responsible for an escalation in rocket firings in the past week.
“If these strong steps don’t bring about calm, the Cabinet will meet to weigh additional, more drastic steps,” he added.
Sunday’s air strike raised to 27 the number of Palestinians Israel has killed in Gaza since it stepped up air raids in response to heightened rocket attacks that have wounded a dozen Israelis in the past week.
Israel killed three suspected Hamas fighters in a Gaza air strike earlier on Sunday.
Hayya, the apparent target of Israel’s strike, had earlier played a role in announcing a deal calling a formal end to the deadliest fighting between Hamas and rival Fateh members since a unity government deal in March.