Israel showed no sign of slowing a blistering seven-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza, destroying the homes of more than a dozen of the group's operatives yesterday and bombing one of its mosques a day after a deadly strike killed a prominent Hamas figure and most of his family.
In what appeared to be a new Israeli tactic, the military called at least some of the houses ahead of time to warn inhabitants of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn away civilians before flattening the homes with powerful missiles, Palestinians and Israeli defense officials said.
Israel launched the aerial campaign last Saturday in a bid to halt weeks of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. The offensive has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas, but failed to halt the rocket fire. New attacks yesterday struck apartment buildings in a southern Israeli city. No serious injuries were reported.
After destroying Hamas' security compounds, Israel has turned its attention to the militant group's leadership. In airstrike after airstrike early yesterday, Israeli warplanes hit some 20 houses believed to belong to Hamas militants and members of other armed groups, Palestinians said.
Most of the targeted homes yesterday belonged to activist leaders and appeared to be empty at the time, but one man was killed in a strike that flattened a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.
More than 400 Gazans have been killed and some 1,700 have been wounded in the Israeli campaign, Gaza health officials say. The number of combatants and civilians killed is unclear, but Hamas says around half of the dead are members of its security forces and the UN says more than 60 are civilians, 34 of them children.
Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have also died in the rocket attacks, which have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing one-eighth of Israel's population of 7 million within rocket range.
The mosque destroyed yesterday was known as a Hamas stronghold, and the army said it was used to store weapons. It also was identified with Nizar Rayan, the Hamas militant leader killed on Thursday when Israel dropped a bomb on his home.
The explosion killed a total of 20 people, including all four of Rayan's wives and 10 of his children. Hamas has said that more than 100 of the mosque's worshippers have been killed in the past on missions against Israelis.
The hit on Rayan's home obliterated the four-story apartment building and peeled off the walls of others around it, carving out a vast field of rubble.
Rayan, 49, ranked among Hamas' top five decision-makers. A professor of Islamic law, he was known for his close ties to the group's military wing and was respected in Gaza for donning combat fatigues and personally participating in clashes against Israeli forces. He sent one of his sons on an October 2001 suicide mission that killed two Israeli settlers in Gaza.