Three Islamic Jihad commanders and multiple family members were among the 13 Palestinians killed as Israeli jets and helicopters struck multiple targets in Gaza overnight in what Israel described as an operation targeting “kingpin terrorists,” leading to threats of retaliation.
One of the three Islamic Jihad commanders killed overnight was working on capabilities to launch rockets from the West Bank toward Israel, IDF chief spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters during a briefing, Hagari said Tariq Muhammad Ezzedine was involved in Islamic Jihad operations in the West Bank, including bringing “improvised rockets that will be launched from the West Bank into Israel to harm civilians.”
Rockets have never been fired from the West Bank into Israel.
Islamic Jihad confirmed three of its commanders were killed in the overnight operation along with their wives and children.
The commanders killed were Jihad Shaker Al-Ghannam, secretary of the Military Council in the al Quds Brigades; Khalil Salah al Bahtini, commander of the Northern Region in the al Quds Brigades; and Ezzedine, one of the leaders of the military wing of the al Quds Brigades in the West Bank, the group said.
The group vowed a “response” to Israeli airstrikes, calling the attacks an “aggressive, heinous massacre.”
Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement that runs Gaza, issued a similar statement, promising a “firm response from the unified resistance forces, whose unity is manifested in its greatest form in the field.”
Hagari said the operation had been planned since last Tuesday, when Islamic Jihad fired more than 100 rockets toward Israel following the death of its former spokesman while on hunger strike in an Israeli prison.
But, the IDF did not have the “operational conditions” until overnight.
“On the day on which the rockets were fired last week, I ordered – together with the Defense Minister – the preparation of an operation to target the arch-terrorists that would, in effect, hit the senior leadership of the organization in the Gaza Strip,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday at the start of a security cabinet meeting.
“Our principle is clear: Whoever harms us – we will strike at them and with great force. Our long arm will reach every terrorist at a time and place of our choosing,” he added.
The IDF launched a further stike on Tuesday, saying its air force targeted “a terrorist squad” belonging to Islamic Jihad in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
“The squad was taking Anti-tank guided missiles by car to a launch pad in the city of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. IDF soldiers monitored the activity of the squad and struck it while they were on their way to the launch pad,” IDF said.
The Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza said two people were killed and two others injured in that attack east of Khan Younis, although they have yet to identify them, bringing the death toll in Gaza to 15.
The Al Shifa hospital in Gaza said those killed in the overnight strikes were members of four families plus one other individual.
The dead included five women and four children, a list of the dead released by the Al-Shifa Medical Complex showed.
One of the Palestinian men killed in Israeli airstrikes was a prominent dentist, Jamal Khaswan, who died along with his wife and son, the Ministry of Health added. Khaswan was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Al-Wafa Hospital, the ministry said, praising him as a scientific and practical man of great determination.
He held Russian citizenship, according to the Russian Representative Office in Ramallah. The Russian Mission said Khaswan and his wife left behind two orphaned children who are also Russian citizens.
The Ministry of Health added that 20 people had been injured, including three children and seven women.
When asked about civilians who were also killed in the attack, IDF spokesperson Hagari said they were not intentionally targeted.
“In every operation we try to create that we will have the minimize the harm of civilians and minimize collateral damage,” Hagari said. “Unfortunately, we had women and children that were dead. We would rather have no uninvolved personnel dead in our operations but it’s hard we’re working against terrorist who are conducting their activity day and night amongst civilians. We are trying to create conditions for minimum harm of people in our operations.”
Hagari said that while the IDF focused specifically on Islamic Jihad, the military is prepared for any expanded scenario.
“We are ready all our capabilities especially in the defense the Iron Dome all around the country and also planes are ready,” he said.
Islamic Jihad said Ghannam, 62, was also commander-in-chief of the al Quds Brigades and has been wanted for over 20 years, having survived five previous assassination attempts.
He had worked in Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and the Popular Resistance Committees, secular Palestinian militant groups that predate the emergence of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group said.
The IDF accused Ghannam of coordinating weapons and money transfers between Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the militant group which runs Gaza. It called him one of the most senior members of Islamic Jihad.
Calling the strikes “Operation Shield and Arrow,” the IDF said its fighter jets and helicopters hit 10 Islamic Jihad targets, including what it said were “rocket production workshops in Khan Yunis,” weapon manufacturing sites, military compounds, a concrete manufacturing site and a military post in southern Gaza.
Video from Gaza showed explosions lighting up the night sky and the rubble from buildings hit by the strikes.
Israel conducted strikes on what it said were targets belonging to Hamas as dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel on May 2.
It followed the death of Palestinian detainee Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad former spokesman who became a symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli detention policies, in Israeli custody after 87 days of hunger strike.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen cut short a three-day official visit to India in the wake of the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.
He said he had received a security update immediately on landing in New Delhi on Tuesday, when he was due to travel to the city of Agra and then to the financial capital Mumbai on Wednesday, according to an itinerary published by India’s Ministry of External affairs.
Gaza is one of the most densely packed places in the world, an isolated coastal enclave of almost two million people crammed into 140 square miles.
Governed by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the territory is largely cut off from the rest of the world by an Israeli blockade of Gaza’s land, air and sea dating back to 2007. Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border crossing, Rafah.
Israel has placed heavy restrictions on the freedom of civilian movement and controls the importation of basic goods into the narrow coastal strip.
IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said he did not know if there would be more follow up strikes.
“We don’t know yet where we go. It’s still early,” he said. “We’re ready for as long as it takes. The big question is Hamas. What will they decide to do?”
CNN’s Ibrahim Dahman reported from Gaza and CNN’s Abeer Salman and Richard Allen Greene reported from Jerusalem. CNN’s Manveena Suri contributed reporting from New Delhi.