Israel hammers Hamas in Gaza

Israel offended Palestinian militants by killing their commander and threatening invasion.

Israel flag. Picture: AFP

GAZA - Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday, killing the military commander of Hamas in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave that the Islamist group vowed would "open the gates of hell".

The onslaught shattered hopes that a truce mediated on Tuesday by Egypt could pull the two sides back from the brink of war after five days of escalating Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes at militant targets.

Operation "Pillar of Defence" began with a surgical strike on a car carrying the commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Iranian-armed Islamist movement which controls Gaza and dominates a score of smaller armed groups.

Within minutes of the death of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, big explosions shook Gaza as the Israeli air force struck at selected targets just before sundown, blasting plumes of smoke and debris high above the crowded city.

Panicking civilians ran for cover and the death toll mounted quickly. Ten people including three children were killed, the health ministry said, and about 40 were wounded. Also among the dead were an 11-month-old baby and a woman pregnant with twins.

Army tanks shelled border areas of Gaza in south and the Israeli navy shelled a Hamas security position from the sea.

Hamas stuck back, firing at least four Grad rockets at the southern city of Beersheba in what it called its initial response. Israel reported damage but no casualties. Its 'Iron Dome' interceptor defence knocked out a dozen rockets in flight.

The escalation in Gaza came in a week when Israel fired at Syrian artillery positions it said had fired into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights amid a civil war in Syria that has brought renewed instability to neighbouring Lebanon.

Egypt, whose new Islamist government pledged to honour the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, condemned the raids as a threat to regional security, recalled its ambassador from Israel and called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak twice withdrew his ambassador, with no lasting effect. But Israel will be watching for signs of a more aggressive approach by the Islamist leader that could imperil their ties.

Mursi has said of the Palestinians that "our blood is their blood" and Egypt may not "accept what was accepted before".

Russia called for an end to the raids. Arab League foreign ministers planned to meet on Saturday to discuss the crisis.