Palestinians carry the bodies of Mohammed Abu Shamaleh and Raed Attar, two senior Hamas commanders killed by Israeli airstrikes, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Aug. 21, 2014. The airstrikes targeting Hamas military commanders were the most significant blow to the militant group’s leadership since the outbreak of hostilities more than six weeks ago. (Wissam Nassar/The New York Times)
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel stepped up its campaign against Gaza's ruling Hamas on Thursday, killing three of the group's senior military commanders in an airstrike that pulverized a four-story home, the second such attack targeting top leaders in two days.
The pinpoint pre-dawn attack on Hamas' inner sanctum was launched minutes after the men emerged from tunnel hideouts, a security official said — displaying the long reach of Israel's intelligence services.
The killing of the commanders, who played a key role in expanding Hamas' military capabilities in recent years, was bound to lower morale in the secretive group, but might not necessarily diminish its ability to fire rockets at Israel.
Thursday's strike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, coupled with a Cabinet decision to call up 10,000 more reserve soldiers, signaled an escalation in the Israel-Hamas war after Egyptian cease-fire efforts collapsed this week.
Since July 8, fighting has claimed more than 2,000 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials and the U.N., and entire neighborhoods of Gaza have been destroyed. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a guest worker also have been killed.
Meanwhile, a senior Hamas leader in exile admitted that Hamas was behind the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank — the group's first claim of responsibility for the June attack that triggered an Israeli crackdown and eventually led to the Gaza war.
Saleh Arouri told an international conference of Islamic scholars in Turkey on Wednesday that Hamas grabbed the teens in hopes of sparking a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank.
This week's resumption of Gaza fighting came after several failed rounds of indirect talks of Israel and Hamas in Cairo.
Egyptian mediators had proposed that in exchange for quiet on the Israel-Gaza border, Israel gradually ease a border blockade it had imposed on Gaza, alongside Egypt, after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Hamas rejected the proposal, saying Israel didn't offer anything specific.
In an apparent attempt to revive diplomacy, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held talks in Qatar on Thursday with his main Palestinian rival Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader in exile.
Abbas lost control of Gaza in the Hamas takeover seven years ago, but several months ago signed a reconciliation deal with Hamas that was to give him a new foothold in the territory.
During the Cairo talks, Abbas confidants in a joint delegation with Hamas had urged the Islamic militants to accept the Egyptian offer, without success. Some in the Abbas camp had pointed fingers at Mashaal and his host and backer, Qatar.
Abbas was to head to Cairo for top-level meetings Friday.
At the United Nations, three European countries — Britain, Germany and France — were working on a Security Council resolution calling for a Gaza cease-fire and international monitoring to ensure implantation, said a U.N. diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss sensitive deliberations.
The European resolution would also include a European offer to take charge of Gaza's border crossings, along with a deployment there of security forces loyal to Abbas.
Since the breakdown of the Cairo talks late Tuesday, accompanied by the violation of a temporary cease-fire by Gaza militants, cross-border violence has continued at a steady pace.
On Thursday, more than 100 rockets were fired from Gaza, while Israel carried out some 50 airstrikes, the Israeli military said.
In all, at least 26 Palestinians were killed Thursday, among them six children, bringing the death toll since July 8 to 2,086, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.