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Associated Press photos
Columns of smoke rise after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Wednesday. The airstrikes killed Hamas’ military commander and targeted the armed group’s training facilities.

Israel pounds targets in Gaza

Hamas leader killed; ground assault hinted

Israeli soldiers and civilians run to a shelter as a siren sounds, signaling an attack coming from the Gaza Strip, near the Israeli-Egyptian border.

– Israel carried out a blistering offensive of more than 20 airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, assassinating Hamas’ military commander and targeting the armed group’s training facilities and rocket launchers in Israel’s most intense attack on the territory in nearly four years.

Israel said the airstrikes, launched in response to days of rocket fire out of Hamas-ruled Gaza, were the beginning of a broader operation against the Islamic militants codenamed “Pillar of Defense.” Israeli defense officials said a ground operation was possible in coming days, though they stressed no decisions had been made and much would depend on Hamas’ reaction. There were no immediate signs of extraordinary troop deployments along the border.

The attack came at a time when Israel seems to be under fire from all directions. Relations have been deteriorating with Egypt’s new Islamist government; Egypt’s lawless Sinai desert has become a staging ground for militant attacks on Israel; and the Syrian civil war has begun to spill over Israel’s northern border.

Earlier this week, Israel fired back at Syria – for the first time in nearly 40 years – after stray mortar fire landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

With at least 10 Palestinians dead, including two young children, Wednesday’s offensive is likely to set off a new round of heavy fighting with Gaza militants, who have built up a formidable arsenal of rockets and missiles.

It also threatens to upset Israel’s relations with neighboring Egypt and shake up the campaign for Israeli elections in January. In a preliminary response, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest.

In a nationwide address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns. Days of rocket fire have disrupted life for nearly 1 million people in the region, canceling school and forcing residents to remain indoors.

“If there is a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protect our citizens,” Netanyahu declared.

The Israeli military said it was ready, if necessary, to send ground troops into Gaza. The defense officials who said a ground operation was likely in the coming days spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive military plans.

“We are at the beginning of the event, and not the end,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, in a joint appearance with the prime minister. “In the long run I believe the operation will help strengthen the power of deterrence and to return quiet to the south.”

In a sign that the operation was expected to broaden, the military was cleared to call up reserve units.

More than 65 rockets landed in southern Israel late Wednesday. One projectile struck a shopping mall in the southern city of Beersheba, causing heavy damage but no casualties, police said.

The deadly attack on Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari marked the resumption of Israel’s policy of “targeted killings,” or assassinations of senior Hamas men. Israel has refrained from such attacks, which have drawn international condemnations, since a fierce three-week offensive in Gaza that ended in January 2009.

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