GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel killed a senior Hamas leader in an air attack on his home on Thursday, striking its first deadly blow against the top ranks of the Islamist group in a Gaza offensive that has claimed more than 400 Palestinian lives.
Nizar Rayyan, a cleric widely regarded as one of Hamas’s most hardline political leaders, had called for renewed suicide bombings inside Israel. Medical officials, confirming his death, said two of his four wives and seven of his children were killed in the bombing, in Jabalya refugee camp.
Hundreds of supporters scrambling over the concrete rubble vowed revenge as the mangled bodies, covered in blood and cement dust, were extracted from the wreckage. “The blood of Sheikh Nizar Rayyan and the blood of other martyrs will never be wasted and the enemy will pay a heavy price for crimes it committed,” said Hamas official Ayman Taha.
Black-bearded Rayyan, 49, was a preacher at Jabalya’s “mosque of martyrs” who mentored suicide bombers. With a cartridge belt around his stocky frame, he would sometimes patrol the streets of Gaza with Hamas fighters.
Hamas Radio said he had ignored advice to leave his house as other Hamas leaders have done in anticipation of assassination attempts by Israeli forces, who also confirmed the air strike.
Israeli armoured forces remained massed on the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion as international calls for an immediate ceasefire mounted. “I think that even now, after a few days of operation we have achieved changes,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said after talks in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “We affected most of the infrastructure of terror within the Gaza Strip and the question whether it’s enough will be
according to an assessment on a daily basis.
Livni reiterated Israel’s rejection of a French-proposed ceasefire of 48 hours to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. “There is no humanitarian crisis in the Strip, and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce,” she said. “Israel has been supplying comprehensive humanitarian aid to the Strip … and has even been stepping this up by the day.”
Seventy trucks carrying flour, cooking oil and other humanitarian supplies, including aid from Saudi Arabia, crossed into the Gaza Strip from Israel on Thursday. But medics say their needs are acute, and power bloackouts are increasing.
The deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades has killed at least 410 Palestinians and wounded some 1,850. About a quarter of the dead were civilians, the U.N. estimates.
On the sixth day of hostilities, Israeli aircraft and naval forces attacked about 20 Hamas targets, including a government complex, the Israeli military said.
Visiting southern Israeli towns where rockets fired from Gaza have killed four people since Saturday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was fighting Hamas with an “iron fist”.
Israeli television broadcast film of rubble-strewn street in the port of Ashdod, where a Hamas rocket tore into the eighth floor of a high-rise. Several residents were treated for shock. “I very much hope we will succeed in achieving our goals quickly,” Olmert said, repeating Israel’s pledge to end the rocket attacks.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session but adjourned without a vote after Arab countries pushed for an immediate ceasefire. Western delegates described the Arab-drafted resolution as unbalanced and said negotiations would continue to reach an agreed text.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli attacks must stop before any truce proposals could be considered. Israel must also lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings.
The Czech prime minister, who holds the European Union presidency, said EU foreign ministers would conduct a mission to the Middle East, likely to coincide with a visit to Jerusalem on Monday by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Olmert told his security cabinet on Wednesday that if a diplomatic solution could be found that ensured better security for southern Israel, the government would consider it.
Israeli officials said it would require international monitoring to ensure Hamas lives up to its obligations. “At this point there’s no concrete plan for monitors. It is one of several ideas being discussed,” an Israeli official said.
The Gaza operation, launched after Hamas ended a six-month ceasefire on Dec. 19 and intensified rocket strikes, could affect the outcome of Israel’s Feb. 10 national election.
A poll in the Haaretz daily showed 52 percent of Israelis favoured pursuing the attacks in Gaza, with just 20 percent backing calls for a ceasefire, and 19 percent favouring the launch of a ground offensive into Gaza.