Gaza City: An Israeli airstrike killed the commander of the militant group behind the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and a second militant in Gaza on Friday in the highest profile attack against the coastal strip in months.
The Israeli military confirmed the strike, saying the slain commander Zuhair al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to one his group carried out in August that killed eight people and injured 40 more. In a statement, the military warned Gaza's Hamas rulers against any retaliation for the strike.
Hours later, two more militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike east of Gaza City, said Gaza Health Ministry official Adham Abu Salmiya. Israel confirmed the attack, saying the two were preparing a rocket attack toward Israel.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before al-Qaissi's vehicle exploded into flames, in a southern district of Gaza City.
Al-Qaissi was the top commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee, a large militant group aligned with Hamas that was behind the 2006 abduction of Schalit, an Israeli soldier who was held in Gaza for more than five years until he was freed in a prisoner swap last year.
The PRC's spokesman confirmed al-Qaissi's death. He identified the second casualty as Mahmoud Hanini, who hails from the West Bank and was released from an Israeli prison five years ago and deported to Gaza.
"The coward Zionists have committed an ugly crime, and they know the price that they are going to pay," said the spokesman, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Mujahid.
Abu Mujahid suggested retaliation could be on the way. Such strikes often lead to return rocket strikes from Gaza into Israel.
"We call on our fighters to respond to the Zionist enemy with all our strength," he said. "We shall avenge our leader and the response, God willing, will be equal to the size of the heinous crime."
The Israeli military insisted it did not want an escalation but said it was "prepared to defend the residents of Israel."
It charged that Hamas was using other groups to carry out attacks and it "will bear the consequences of these actions" if an escalation took place.
Israel often targets Gaza militants it says are preparing attacks, but tensions have been relatively calm in recent months with Israel mostly targeting smuggling tunnels from Egypt and refraining from targeting individuals. Al-Qaissi, who is also known as Abu Ibrahim, is the highest profile casualty in Gaza in months.
Another Gazan was seriously wounded in the attack. His identity remains unclear.
The Israeli military said that al-Qaissi was behind several deadly attacks against Israel, including rocket fire, and he was also in charge of transferring funds from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to other militant groups in Gaza.
First Published: Saturday, March 10, 2012, 00:28