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Official: Toll in Israel Gaza strikes 12 militants

SHARE Official: Toll in Israel Gaza strikes 12 militants

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A violent flare-up that began when Israel killed a leading militant commander in the Gaza Strip has so far killed 12 militants, said a Palestinian health spokesman Saturday.

The killing also unleashed a barrage of rockets by furious Palestinian militants from the coastal territory toward Israel's southern border communities. One of those rockets seriously wounded an Israeli civilian and sent families scattering into bomb shelters.

The Palestinian militants were killed in seven airstrikes overnight and on Saturday morning, said Gaza health spokesman Adham Abu Salmiya. He said some 20 more civilians were wounded by flying shrapnel from the exploding missiles, some of which targeted militants deep in civilian areas of the crowded territory.

The flare-up began midmorning Friday, when an Israeli airstrike targeted the commander of one of the militant groups behind the abduction of an Israeli soldier five years ago.

Zuhair Al-Qaissi's killing prompted Palestinian militants in Gaza to fire over 50 rockets at Israel so far, according to a count by Israel's military.

As militants sought to fire rockets, they were targeted by Israeli airstrikes. One militant was killed on Gaza City's main upscale boulevard. Another was hit while driving a car in the central Gaza City town of Deir al-Balah.

The Israeli military said it initially targeted al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee, a militant group closely aligned with Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Members of several other Palestinian groups joined the fray. The majority of those killed overnight belonged to the Islamic Jihad, a militant group that has sought to build up its arsenal over the past few months.

The Friday strike was the highest profile killing Israel has undertaken against militants in the coastal strip in several months.

The military said al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the raid from Egypt's Sinai peninsula that they claim he orchestrated in August, which killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.

The militant group has never taken responsibility for the attack.

The explosion tore apart al-Qaissi's blue sedan and killed his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini — himself a top PRC field commander. Another low ranking Gaza militant also died.

Palestinian witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before al-Qaissi's vehicle burst into flames. They said the blast was so fierce that al-Qaissi's head was torn off.

The Popular Resistance Committee is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis in recent years and its members are among the most active rocket launchers from Gaza into Israel.

The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was also in charge of transferring funds from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to other militant groups in Gaza.

But the group is mostly known for carrying out the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit and holding on to him for more than five years until he was freed in a massive prisoner swap last year.

Israel's agreement to release 1,027 Palestinians for Schalit was the most lopsided swap in the country's history.

Israel often targets Gaza militants it says are preparing attacks, but tensions have been relatively calm in recent months with Israel mostly targeting smuggling tunnels from Egypt and refraining from attacking individuals. Al-Qaissi, who is also known as Abu Ibrahim, is the highest profile casualty in Gaza since his predecessor, Kamal Nairab, was killed seven months ago in a similar fashion.

The military said Palestinian militants had fired some 50 rockets and mortar shells at Israel over the past two months, causing no casualties and little damage.

Gaza militants promised many more would come.

The Israeli military insisted it did not want an escalation but said it was "prepared to defend the residents of Israel."

But it appeared to be getting ready for the worst, issuing a warning to Israeli residents living within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza to stay close to home Friday night and refrain from holding major outdoor events Saturday.