GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Friday killed the commander of the militant group behind the abduction of Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier who was held captive for more than five years and freed in a prisoner swap for more than 1,000 Palestinians.
The midday attack marked the highest profile Israeli strike against the coastal strip in several months and immediately sparked retaliatory rocket attacks toward Israel — raising the specter of a violent escalation after a period of relative calm.
The Israeli military said it targeted Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee, a large militant group closely aligned with Gaza's Hamas rulers. The explosion tore apart al-Qaissi's blue sedan and also killed his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini — himself a top PRC field commander.
Another low ranking Gaza militant was also seriously wounded in the attack. Hours later, Israeli military killed two more militants that it said were about to launch rockets.
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 detached as a result.
The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the one he orchestrated in August from the Sinai peninsula that killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.
The armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis is 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 brazen 2006 abduction of 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. Hundreds of those released have vowed to resume violence against Israel.
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 targeting 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 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.
Three mortars landed in Israeli territory prior to Friday's strike. After the strike about a half dozen rockets were fired, and Gaza militants promised many more would come.
"The coward Zionists have committed an ugly crime and they know the price that they are going to pay," said a PRC spokesman, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Mujahid.
"We call on our fighters to respond to the Zionist enemy with all our strength," he said. "We shall avenge our leader and the response, God willing, will be equal to the size of the heinous crime."
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 rocket range from Gaza to stay close to home Friday night and recommending that outdoor events be canceled Saturday.
Israel said Hamas was using other groups to carry out attacks in its place and warned that Gaza's rulers "will bear the consequences of these actions" if an escalation took place.
Mere hours later, Israel struck two more Gaza militants preparing to fire rockets. Gaza Health Ministry official Adham Abu Salmiya confirmed two were killed east of Gaza City. The Islamic Jihad said the dead men were its members.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel for sparking a new escalation.
"The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain," he said.