Amid a new round of fighting in the Middle East on Wednesday, Hamas said an Israeli airstrike killed the wife and young son of its military commander, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu declared that his military's assault in Gaza has dealt the U.S.-designated terrorist group the "harshest blow" since its inception in 1987.
Hamas, which governs Gaza, said Qassam Brigades commander Mohammed Deif was not home and escaped injury when the Israeli strike destroyed his home, killing his family members.
Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas' military wing, said Israel was "unable to get to our commander, Deif," who he said will "lead the army that will enter to liberate the holy al-Aqsa mosque" in Jerusalem.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told the group's TV station Al-Aqsa that Deif "wasn't even in the location when they bombed it."
At a news conference, Netanyahu said, "Hamas leaders are legitimate targets," according to the Israeli news site Ynet News.
Israel renewed its airstrikes in Gaza after a barrage of rockets from the coastal Palestinian territory hit southern Israel hours before a Tuesday deadline for the end of a six-day truce to establish a long-term cease-fire agreement. Hamas has demanded an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, Israel has demanded that Hamas disarm, and neither side has shown much inclination to compromise.
The talks broke off in Cairo after the rocket barrage, and Israel withdrew its negotiating team. By nightfall in Israel, more than 175 rockets were fired at Israel on Wednesday, and Israel targeted more than 60 sites in Gaza, according to Ynet.
Sixty-seven people have died on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers, and more than 2,000 Palestinians have died in six weeks of fighting. Hamas said the dead are overwhelmingly civilians, while Israel has said nearly half are Hamas fighters.
The conflict began after Palestinians in Gaza launched hundreds of rockets at Israeli communities in response to an Israeli roundup of Hamas members in the West Bank during a search for three kidnapped Israeli teens, who were later found to have been murdered. Palestinians also were inflamed by a revenge killing of a Palestinian teen by Israeli extremists.
"In recent weeks, we have dealt Hamas a massive blow, the most serious blow since their establishment," Netanyahu said Wednesday. "We are determined to continue and use any means needed."
Netanyahu asserted that Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was ousted from power last year in Egypt, is isolated. "Who supports Hamas? Qatar, Turkey and Iran. The entire Arab world is against it," he said.
Netanyahu said Israel's offensive will continue until there is calm, but the renewed violence comes as a growing Israeli chorus is criticizing Netanyahu for not going far enough to damage Hamas.
"It is now clear to everyone that the policy of 'quiet will be met with quiet' means that Hamas is the one that takes the initiative and the one that decides when, where, and how many rockets it fires on Israeli civilians, while we make do with reacting," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page. "Even if our reaction is a strong one, it is still a reaction."
"When people speak seriously about the security of the citizens of Israel, one needs to understand that there is no other viable alternative except for a determined Israeli campaign that leads to one thing — bringing Hamas to submission," Lieberman wrote.
Israeli opposition leader Zehava Gal-On of the Meretz Party called Lieberman's calls for annihilating Hamas a "delusion."
If Israel's southern residents are still vulnerable to rocket fire after 2,000 Palestinian deaths and more than a month of destruction, "then apparently this operation didn't change anything, and no military operation will change it," Gal-On said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Hamas spokesman Obeida said in a televised speech Wednesday that the group should call off negotiations because Israel was stalling and not offering any concessions, according to the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency.
"We tell Israel: You have failed. All you can do is kill children and women," Obeida said.
He warned international flights to avoid Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. He also warned Israelis against gathering in large numbers and against returning to their homes near Gaza because the Qassam Brigades would renew their rocket fire into Israel.
Air raid sirens wailed in southern Israeli cities Wednesday, warning of incoming rockets from Gaza. There were no reports of injuries, though a piece of a rocket that was intercepted near Tel Aviv fell on a busy road Tuesday night.
Israel's civil defense authority ordered the reopening of public bomb shelters within 50 miles of Gaza.
Contributing: The Associated Press
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