RAFAH, Gaza Strip — About 10,000 mourners on Thursday buried three senior commanders of the armed wing of Hamas who were killed in predawn airstrikes by Israel, the most significant blow to the group’s leadership since Israel’s operation in Gaza began more than six weeks ago.
“Oh, beloved Qassam, strike, strike Tel Aviv,” some chanted, referring to the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, as the body of Mohammed Barhoum, 45, was carried on a red stretcher to a mosque here in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
A man who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed said of the most senior of the three slain leaders, Mohammed Abu Shamalah, 41, “All Rafah loves him — all Gaza.”
The attack, which also killed the father of a human rights advocate and at least two children, followed Israel’s assassination attempt Tuesday night on Mohammed Deif, the chief of Hamas’s military operations who has topped Israel’s most-wanted list for years. Deif’s fate remains unknown, but his wife and son were killed in the airstrike.
It was also unclear whether the back-to-back attacks on Hamas commanders indicated a shift in Israeli strategy or simply a seizing of opportunity after the men emerged from underground bunkers during the recent halt in hostilities after a month of fierce fighting that began July 8.
But Israeli analysts said the targeting of such leaders had both tactical and morale-breaking ramifications for Gaza-based militants, and provided the Israeli public with a tangible achievement without drawing the world’s wrath about civilian casualties.
“It’s not that they’re not going to function; they will function, but it’s still a blow to Hamas — these people are senior people, they carry responsibilities,” said Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in Israel and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s not easy to replace them.
“These are more quality targets than just merely taking out junior guys. People in Gaza know exactly who they are; people in Israel know exactly who they are,’’ Herzog said. “In our bilateral context, it resonates strongly.”
The strikes came on the second day of renewed violence after the collapse of Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks that had halted hostilities for nearly nine days, in what many saw as a new phase of the conflict.
They also followed the first direct claim of responsibility by a Hamas leader — Salah el-Aruri, who is based in Turkey — for the June 12 abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, an event that many see as one of the triggers of the Israel-Gaza escalation.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, said in a statement that the three commanders represented the “founding generation” of the Qassam Brigades and that they “fed pain to the enemy for more than 20 years.”
Raed Attar, who was born in 1974, led Qassam’s Rafah brigade and was known as “the blond.” He was killed along with Abu Shamalah, the chief of Qassam’s southern division whose nickname was “the fox,” and Barhoum — “the white-haired” or “the old” — who Hamas said was among Israel’s first wanted men, starting in 1992.
Attar and Abu Shamalah sat on Qassam’s elite military council, led by Deif, and were involved in the 2006 abduction of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was held for five years and later exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Attar was shown leading Shalit by the arm from a truck in a video during his release in 2011.
A statement from the Israeli military said Attar also had been involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza, he had constructed tunnels into Israeli territory, and he had plotted attacks from the Sinai Peninsula.
Abu Shamalah, the statement said, orchestrated the July 17 tunnel incursion near Kibbutz Sufa that led to Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza and was involved in a 2008 attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza that wounded 13 soldiers.
“These are two senior terrorists that have been in our sights for the last 15 years,” Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said in an interview.