Israel killed the head of the military wing of the Islamist group Hamas in a missile strike on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and launched a campaign of air strikes on the enclave.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said “the occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself” by assassinating its top commanders.
The two sides appeared to be on the brink of a new war, and the attacks marked the biggest escalation between Israel and Gaza militants since a 2008-2009 conflict and came despite signs on Tuesday that neighboring Egypt had managed to broker a truce in the enclave after a five day surge of violence.
Israeli officials say Ahmed Jaabari was involved in financing and directing attacks against Israel, and Israeli President Shimon Peres called him a “mass-murderer” in a call to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation sent a “clear message” to Hamas. “Today we sent a clear message to Hamas and other terrorist organizations, and if it becomes necessary we are prepared to expand the operation,” he said in a televised address.
Witnesses reported at least six air strikes across the territory and said dozens of Israeli tanks were massed along the border east of Gaza City.
Video from Gaza showed the charred and mangled wreckage of a car belching flames, as emergency crews picked up what appeared to be body parts.
Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio.
“The occupation has opened the doors of hell,” Hamas’s armed wing said. Smaller groups also vowed to strike back.
“Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.
The assassination follows a flareup in and around the Gaza border, which saw militants fire more than 120 rockets over the border, and Israel killing seven Palestinians.
Who is Jaabari?
Jaabari deliberately kept a low profile, was rarely photographed and avoided being interviewed.
But a deal to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit brought him out of the shadows last year.
He allowed himself to be caught on camera on October 18, 2011 as he delivered Shalit to Egypt as part of a key prisoner exchange deal with the Jewish state.
The footage was broadcast instantly around the world, and showed Jaabari in civilian clothing, glasses in his shirt pocket, as he walked his Israeli charge to a car.
Jaabari hailed from a respected activist family in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, with close ally Abu Hudaifa describing him as confident in his own decisions and committed to following up personally on issues.
A history graduate from Gaza’s Islamic University, Jaabari was arrested by Israel in 1982 when he was an activist with Fatah, the secular Palestinian national movement which has long been a bitter rival of Hamas.
It was in prison, where he spent 13 for planning deadly attacks, where he met some of Hamas’s top leaders such as Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, Ismail Abu Shanab, Nizar Rayyan and Salah Shehadeh and decided to join the movement.
Shehadeh led the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades until he was killed in a massive Israeli air strike in July 2002, after which he was replaced by Mohammed Deif.
Several months later, Deif was badly wounded in another Israeli strike and went underground, leaving Jaabari as the operational head of the armed movement at the height of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Known in Gaza as “the general” or the “chief of staff,” Jaabari could occasionally be spotted walking alone in the street.
But, as one of the top names on Israel’s most wanted list, Jaabari took almost obsessive care when it came to his personal security.
Jaabari had previously been the apparent target of more than one Israeli assassination attempt, including a 2004 air strike that killed his eldest son Mohammed, along with his brother and several of his cousins.
He was also targeted by the Palestinian security forces, who arrested him in 1998 and held him for nearly two years on account of his activities with Shehadeh and Deif.
After Jaabari took over the day-to-day running of operations, the armed group became increasingly professional.
He was also credited with playing a leading role in the Islamist movement’s forcible takeover of Gaza in summer 2007, which saw its militants expelling Fatah forces after a week of bloody fighting.
In addition to his leadership role in Ezzedine al-Qassam, Jaabari was a member of the movement’s political leadership and the founder of Nur, an association to help “martyrs and prisoners.”
He had two wives, including a daughter of his mentor, Shehadeh.