JERUSALEM — Hamas has repeatedly broken temporary truces in this summer’s Gaza Strip battles, vowing to fire rockets into Israel until its demands are met. But the latest round of fighting appears to have given Israel the upper hand in a conflict that has outlasted all expectations.
Barrages of rockets from Gaza sailed into Israel nearly nonstop Thursday, but they did little damage, and a Hamas threat against Ben Gurion International Airport failed to materialize. Israel, meanwhile, killed three top commanders of Hamas’ armed wing in airstrikes and by afternoon had called up 10,000 reservists, perhaps in preparation for a further escalation.
In contrast to the earlier phase of the war, Israel this week deployed its extensive intelligence capabilities and overwhelming firepower in targeted bombings with limited civilian casualties less likely to raise the world’s ire.
After Thursday’s airstrike in Rafah, the Hamas military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said three senior commanders, Mohammed Abu Shamaleh, Raed Attar and Mohammed Barhoum had been killed.
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Several hours later, thousands marched through Rafah in a funeral procession, firing guns, waving flags of different militant groups and chanting religious slogans. Those killed were carried aloft through on stretchers, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Israel “will not succeed in breaking the will of our people or weaken the resistance,” and that Israel “will pay the price.”
A senior Hamas leader in exile, meanwhile, admitted that Hamas was behind the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, the group’s first claim of responsibility for the June attack that triggered an Israeli crackdown and eventually led to the Gaza war. Saleh Arouri described the kidnappings as “heroic operation,” adding that Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, hoped to exchange the three for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Arouri’s admission shows “Hamas has no qualms whatsoever about targeting innocent civilians,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.
The long-term impact of the strikes against the Hamas commanders, which followed an attempted assassination of the head of the armed wing on Tuesday night, may be limited. Hamas waged its fiercest fight ever this summer despite Israel’s 2012 hit on the director of day-to-day military operations.
But in killing Hamas militant leaders responsible for years of headline-grabbing attacks, including the 2006 abduction of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, Israel dealt a psychological blow to Hamas while giving the home front something to celebrate.
“These are senior people,” said Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli brigadier general and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “People in Gaza know exactly who they are, people in Israel know exactly who they are.”
Even more significant would be the death of Mohammed Deif, the shadowy figure who has survived several previous Israeli attacks with severe injuries and was the target of Tuesday night’s attack. Deif’s fate remained unknown Thursday, though the body of his 3-year-old daughter, Sara, was recovered from the rubble of the Gaza City home where five 1-ton bombs also killed one of Deif’s wives, infant son and at least three others.
Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence, called the killing of Deif’s three deputies “a very important operational achievement” and said that if Deif also turns up dead, “this will badly hurt Hamas’ military wing.”
The Gaza Health Ministry said Israeli airstrikes had killed at least 60 people since the collapse Tuesday of cease-fire negotiations in Cairo and the resumption of violence after nearly nine days of quiet, bringing the Palestinian death toll in the operation that began July 8 close to 2,100.
Several of Thursday’s attacks targeted men on motorcycles or in cars who Israel said were militants, though Palestinian witnesses also reported that five people, three of them children, were killed while watering a Gaza City garden, and five others while digging a grave in the cemetery.
Returning to a limited air campaign after weeks of a ground assault in which 64 of its soldiers were killed, Israel avoided the large-scale collateral damage that has provoked international anger.
The Israeli military said more than 300 rockets were fired from Gaza over 48 hours, one of the most intense barrages of the battle so far, sending rattled residents scrambling for shelter.
With Israel and the Palestinians apparently still far apart on terms for a durable truce, analysts suggested settling in for days or even weeks more of cross-border air exchanges, after what is already the longest Israeli military operation in decades. Diplomatic pressure appeared to be easing, if only because the world’s attention seems focused on other crises, including the rise of Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria, the Ebola outbreak in Africa and civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
As the conflict grinds on, Israelis see time as on their side. Experts estimate Hamas began the summer with 10,000 rockets. It has fired nearly 4,000, according to the Israeli military, which says it has taken out at least 3,000 more. So it cannot keep launching at this pace for long.
In Gaza, time is a liability. The number of displaced residents seeking shelter in United Nations schools swelled to nearly 300,000; officials have already given up any hope of classes starting Sunday as planned.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.