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Israel destroys home of a top political leader of Hamas

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli airstrikes flattened the four-story home of Hamas’ top political leader in the Gaza Strip and destroyed offices of the movement’s radio and television station early Tuesday, suggesting a slight operational shift as the battle entered its 22nd day.

Flames raged Tuesday at Gaza’s only power plant, which had also been hit overnight, sending up a huge column of thick, black smoke that was visible for miles. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said he was still looking into the circumstances of the fire, including “whether we had anything to do with it.”

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The strikes during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr came after the latest humanitarian halt to hostilities was punctured by attacks on both sides, culminating in the most deadly incursion yet by Palestinian militants through an underground tunnel from Gaza into Israel.

Lerner said Tuesday that between four and eight gunmen had burst from the tunnel near a military watchtower near the border and killed five soldiers in an adjacent building with anti-tank missiles.

“As they were trying to escape and grab one of the bodies, the soldiers in the tower opened fire,” he said, and they killed or wounded one. The militants then escaped back to Gaza, he said.

Lerner said Israel had identified the tunnel, near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, as part of its mission to destroy underground pathways from Gaza into Israel, the stated goal of the ground campaign that began July 17. But he said the military “did not know where its opening was,” and that the Gazans “only opened the tunnel immediately close to the time of the attack.”

The shutdown of the power plant, which Israel previously attacked in 2006 and which sat idle for weeks this past winter for lack of fuel, threatened to create a humanitarian crisis. The facility powers water and sewage systems as well as hospitals, and it had been Gaza’s main source of electricity in recent days after eight of 10 lines that run from Israel were damaged in the fighting.

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“Today there is no electricity in Gaza,” said Jamal Dardasawi of Gaza’s electricity distribution company, noting that the power supplied by Egypt is not even enough for the southern city of Rafah. “The shelling of the station is a violation of all red lines.”

Rafiq Maliha, director of Gaza’s power plant, said it would likely take “months or a year” to repair it. Maliha said the shells hit the main fuel tank, the fuel-treatment facility and two turbines.

“When Israeli missiles hit the station in 2006, they targeted transformers, not the station itself,” Maliha said. “Today, they are hitting the generating stations.”

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In Gaza City, the streets were nearly empty Tuesday. Most shops were shuttered as people hunkered down after what residents described as a night of terror, with flares fired by Israeli forces constantly lighting up the sky, and large booms resounding across the area.

The military said Tuesday that it had hit 150 targets in Gaza over the previous 24 hours, including the Shati refugee-camp home of Ismail Haniya, the deputy chief of the Hamas movement. No one was injured, as the home had been vacant for days.

“I’d like to know why they just hit the stone,” said Hamdallah Hassouna, a neighbor who said he fled with his family in the middle of the night after a few small missiles hit the empty house, expecting the bigger strike that came later. “Is it just to make noise, just to terrify people?”

On Tuesday, curtains and clothing jutted out from the remaining hunks of concrete, green Hamas flags still flew, and a large photo of Haniya sat atop the rubble. “It was revenge,” said a man who gave his name only as Abu Ghazi and who said he was related to Haniya. “Revenge against the Palestinian people and spreading the aggression against the Palestinian people.”

F-16 and Apache helicopter strikes also ruined the headquarters of the Al Aqsa satellite television and radio channels affiliated with Hamas, the militant Islamic faction that dominates Gaza. The television channel resumed broadcasting after a brief interruption, and the FM-radio station was back on the air at noon on Tuesday. The television station had also been destroyed during an Israeli assault in 2009.

Also flattened was the Financial Monitoring Authority, a government building where some Hamas leaders kept offices. Relatives of Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, own the home next door, which was damaged; Sourani said his brother, his brother’s wife and his 94-year-old aunt were in the house at the time of the strike and had received no warning.

“No one ever expected that this building would be a target,” Sourani said as he surveyed the damage from his roof. “Last night, they just went mad.”

In the Al Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, an airstrike from an F-16 killed the mayor, Anis Abu Shamala, and four others in his home, some of whom had taken refuge there from intense artillery shelling nearby, witnesses said. In Khan Younis, 17 members of the Najjar family, which lost 21 people in a previous strike, were killed, as the Gaza-based Health Ministry said the death toll since the operation began July 8 was over 1,100.

Ahmed Najam, a brigade commander of Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza, was among those killed, according to news reports, apparently the highest-ranking military figure felled so far.

“It takes it up a notch to deal with terrorist organizations on all levels,” Lerner of the Israeli military said, referring to the attacks on political figures and their homes. “We are paralyzing the organizations, pursuing its leadership, and on the tails of the officers who are actually carrying out the attacks.”

But Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, told the news site Ynet that bombing Haniya’s house “really does not move him.”

“I don’t think attacking buildings is important,” Ynet quoted Eiland as saying. “We have to look at what has been achieved and what has still not been achieved. In terms of harm to the missile effort, this whole campaign has not harmed harshly enough.”

Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel continued through the morning, over Tel Aviv in the wee hours and later mostly in the battered periphery of the coastal strip. Funerals were scheduled across Israel on Tuesday for the soldiers slain in the tunnel attack and a mortar shelling inside Israel the day before. A total of 53 soldiers have been killed, along with three civilians on the Israeli side.

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Confusion continued over one of the most controversial episodes of the war, the deaths of 16 people last week at a U.N. school in Beit Hanoun that was serving as a shelter for Gaza residents.

The Israeli military said Sunday that the courtyard of the school compound was empty when a mortar shell fired by its soldiers nearby went astray and struck there Thursday, and that no other Israeli ordnance had hit the school that afternoon. But Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency that runs the school-shelter, said that “there were hundreds of people at the installation when it was hit,” and called for a “full investigation.”

“We had staff at the school when the incident took place,” Gunness said in a statement. “We have spoken to numerous eyewitnesses. According to our reports, after the first shell, there were several others in the close vicinity of the school within a matter of minutes.”

Lerner has acknowledged that there was fierce fighting near the school and suggested that errant fire from the Palestinian side, or perhaps a rocket aiming for Israel that fell short, might have hit the school.

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