Hamas leader dies in air strike as Israeli troops gather at border

Israel took aim at Gaza's rulers for the first time Thursday, killing a senior member of Hamas in an air strike on his home while Israeli soldiers finished preparing for a possible ground invasion.
Smoke rises from a building in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, after it was hit in an Israeli missile strike on Thursday. ((Majed Hamdan/Associated Press))

Israel took aim at Gaza's rulers for the first time Thursday, killing a senior member of Hamas in an air strike on his home while Israeli soldiers finished preparing for a possible ground invasion.

Hamas identified the dead man as Nizar Rayan, who had close ties to the group's military wing. The militant Palestinian organization warned Israel would pay a "heavy price" for his death.

Israel's military confirmed the air strike, one of several executed Thursday on 20-odd targets in the Gaza Strip, saying it believed there was a tunnel beneath Rayan's home being used as an escape route.

"We are trying to hit everybody who is a leader of the organization, and today we hit one of their leaders," Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said in a television interview.

Hamas Radio said Rayan, 49, had ignored advice to get out of the four-storey apartment building where he lived. Many Hamas leaders are in hiding in anticipation of assassination attempts.

The 900-kilogram bomb, which sent huge plumes of smoke into the sky, killed 18 other people, according to Palestinian officials, including all four of Rayan's wives and nine of his 12 children. Several other nearby buildings were damaged.

A professor of Islamic law, Rayan was an outspoken advocate of renewing suicide bombings against the Jewish state. One of his sons carried out a 2001 suicide bombing mission inside Israel that killed two Israeli settlers.

Ground operation in works?

Israeli media reported early Thursday the military had given the green light to launch a ground offensive into Gaza — even as Israel appeared to be sounding out a possible diplomatic exit Thursday by demanding international monitors as a key term of any future truce.

Military spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich said preparations for a ground operation were complete.

"The infantry, the artillery and other forces are ready. They're around the Gaza Strip, waiting for any calls to go inside," Leibovich said.

Soldiers massed along the Gaza frontier told the Associated Press they were eager to join the fight, and some even cheered as they heard thunderous air strikes in the distance.

"I am going crazy here watching all this. I want to do my part as well," said one soldier, who can be identified under military rules only as Sgt. Yaniv.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported a ground operation would be major but short-lived.

Hamas quickly warned of a swift response if Israeli troops cross the border. 

"We are waiting for you to enter Gaza to kill you or make you into Schalits," the group said, referring to Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid by Hamas-affiliated militants 2½ years ago and remains in captivity in Gaza.

While Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had rejected international calls for a two-day ceasefire earlier this week, he has reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other world leaders that Israel would accept a truce if international monitors took responsibility for enforcing it, government officials said on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.

 Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday she was skeptical of the merits of such a truce.

"Our experience from the past is that even when we accept something in order to have a peaceful period of time, [Hamas] abuse it in order to get stronger and to attack Israel later on," Livni told reporters in Paris.

Rocket, air attacks continue

The violence continued across Gaza Thursday as Israeli warplanes bombed the parliament building in Gaza City and its ships attacked coastline positions of Hamas. Israeli military officials said aircraft also bombed smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border.

In addition to the deaths related to the strike on Rayan's compound, at least seven other Palestinians were killed in air strikes Thursday and one died of earlier injuries.

Palestinians had fired more than 30 rockets into Israel by late Thursday. No injuries were reported, but an eight-storey house in the city of Ashdod was damaged by a rocket that cut through two floors.

Senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayan, centre, is shown in a Sept. 15, 2007, file photo during a Hamas military exercise in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip. ((Hatem Moussa/Associated Press))

Israeli officials said a number of residents were treated for shock. Ashdod is about 40 kilometres from Gaza.

Palestinian officials say more than 400 people have died since the air strikes started on Saturday. The United Nations says at least 60 of those were civilians.

In Israel, three civilians and one solider have been killed by Hamas rocket attacks, officials said.

International aid organizations say there are food, medicine and fuel shortages in Gaza, which is home to roughly 1.4 million people. Israel allowed 90 trucks full of humanitarian supplies to cross into Gaza on Thursday.

The UN Security Council late Wednesday discussed but did not vote on an Arab request for a legally binding resolution that would condemn Israel and halt its attacks.

A draft resolution was labelled "unbalanced" by the United States because it made no mention of halting the Hamas rocket fire at Israeli towns that led to the Israeli offensive.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will visit the Middle East next Monday and Tuesday to discuss the violence in Gaza, while Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek announced Thursday he would organize a diplomatic mission comprised of European Union members.

Topolanek, whose country took over presidency of the bloc at midnight, said the mission would include EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and his French and Swedish counterparts.

With files from the Associated Press and Reuters