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 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.
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 Qaissi’s vehicle burst into flames. They said the blast was so fierce that Qaissi’s head detached as a result.
The Israeli military said 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 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.
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.