Hamas Chief of Staff Ahmed Jabari believed that the latest round of warfare between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in Gaza was over by Wednesday. The Israeli Air Force had not attacked any targets in the Strip in response to the barrage of rocket attacks on the south of Israel.
So Jabari allowed himself to lower his guard. He left his command post, driving through the streets of Gaza City in a nondescript grey Kia car with his son and a bodyguard.
In the open, his movements were detected by Israel’s security agency, the Shin Bet, and a drone hovering over Gaza tracked the car.
The order to attack had already been given by the Israeli Cabinet a few hours earlier. When it landed, the guided missile scored a direct hit on the car.
Another strike then targeted the commander of Hamas’s Rafah brigade. Simultaneously, Israeli aircraft attacked multiple targets throughout Gaza, some of them Hamas command posts but mainly underground silos containing dozens of Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles — Hamas’s long-range weapon capable of hitting Israeli towns as far away as Tel Aviv.
Operation Pillar of Cloud had been launched with a devastating strike on Hamas’s senior military commander and most valuable strategic asset.
On Wednesday night, Israel was trying to confine the operation to aerial attacks on military targets, though the option of a ground offensive has been prepared.
But no one can predict when this most devastating round of warfare around Gaza for nearly four years will end. And it could engulf an Israeli election campaign that, for once, was supposed to be focusing on social and economic issues.
For over five years, Ahmed Jabari held a life insurance policy that protected him from assassination. He masterminded the Hamas operation in July 2006 in which Gilad Shalit was snatched into Gaza, where Jabari held him until the prisoner exchange, signed by Jabari himself, last October. Shalit’s release in return for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners bolstered Jabari’s standing at a time when the Hamas political leadership that had left Damascus following the Syrian civil war was weakened.
But once Shalit was back in Israel, Jabari became a key target.
Since Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009, the sporadic missile attacks on Israel were carried out mainly by smaller Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad. In recent months, however, Hamas has been playing a larger part, emboldened by the support it has been receiving from the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt — support that was emphasised on Wednesday night when the Egyptian ambassador to Israel was recalled to Cairo.
Hamas was behind a number of recent attacks on Israeli patrols around the Gaza Strip, including an anti-tank missile launch against a jeep last Saturday in which four soldiers were wounded.
Five Palestinians, some of them civilians, were killed in retaliatory fire by Israeli tanks. In a three-day escalation, more than 100 missiles were fired on Israeli towns and villages, launched by a number of organisations, including Hamas, which for the first time set up joint command posts with its rivals.
At the same time, Israel’s intelligence services were gathering information on more ambitious Hamas operations, including another kidnap of a soldier being planned by Jabari.
A Hamas tunnel, directed across the Gaza border, was exploded last weekend and may have been part of these plans.
These developments led to a rapid reassessment of Israel’s policy toward Hamas. Since the end of Cast Lead, Israel has rarely carried out direct attacks on Hamas personnel. Most air attacks have been at night, when Hamas positions and arms dumps are usually empty.
Targeted assassinations have been carried out only against leaders of the smaller terror groups that were planning to carry out military operations against Israel.
The government, along with the security establishment, decided that Hamas had gone too far and the lack of an Israeli response was emboldening it. So far 2012 has seen more than double the number of missiles launched than in 2011. Israel’s deterrence had to be restored.
On Tuesday the Israeli media reported that government was considering a return to targeted assassinations. Worried that its deliberations had leaked, the government took immediate steps to create the impression that Israel was prepared to abide by a ceasefire, mediated by the Egyptians. The element of surprise was critical.
On Wednesday morning, as the IDF and Shin Bet were putting the final touches to Pillar of Cloud, Mr Netanyahu flew with Defence Minister Ehud Barak to the north to inspect the Syrian border. It was a diversion. As they landed back in Tel Aviv the planes had already taken off for Gaza.
The operation has been in the planning for many months, even years, although the decision to launch was only taken following the shift in Hamas strategy.
Mr Barak numbered four objectives to the operation: strengthening Israel’s deterrence, damaging Hamas’ missile force, damaging the terror infrastructure and minimising harm to Israel’s citizens.
Hamas spokesmen responded with threats to attack “deep within Israel”, which is taken to mean that it will renew its campaign of suicide bombings. As evening fell on Wednesday, Grad rockets were launched towards the city of Beersheva, although most of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system.
Israel’s embassies around the world were briefed to emphasise that the operation was directed only against Hamas’s military apparatus and not against the people of Gaza or the civilian infrastructure, and that the operation would end as soon as Hamas understood the rules of engagement.
To reinforce Israel’s case, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit was quick to distribute footage of Fajr missiles being hidden by Hamas underground, close to civilian homes, a kindergarten and a mosque.
Israeli sources were at pains to point out that there was no immediate plan to repeat Operation Cast Lead with a land campaign.
Only a small number of reservists have been called up so far and the only military units moved towards the Gaza Strip to prepare for possible action have been regular battalions.
Israel also took care to inform the Obama administration of its plans. After it had begun, President Peres called President Obama to explain the operation. US Ambassador Dan Shapiro had said earlier in the week that the administration recognised Israel’s right to defend itself, widely understood to be an American “green light” .
Israel’s main concern now is the response from Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood leaders called on President Morsi to break off relations with Israel , and the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador on Wednesday night has been seen as a worrying step.
Mr Barak did not mention Egypt specifically but everyone knew what he meant when he called upon “the region’s leaders to act with consideration and level-headedness to restore quiet to the area.”