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A building that was hit by Israel on May 9. Image Credit: REUTERS

Jerusalem: Israel readied for violent escalation on all fronts after killing three militant Palestinian leaders and members of their families in the Gaza Strip and bombing weapons sites there overnight.

Top Israeli officials cancelled public appearances and the foreign minister cut short a visit to India as bus and train lines in southern Israel were stopped, bomb shelters were opened and local officials were told to prepare for days of possible conflict.

The military chief of staff met with top generals and intelligence officers. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant cancelled an appearance at a conference, convened senior security officials and instructed regional leaders to be ready.

“What is most important is initiative, surprise and deterrence,” Gallant said at the meeting.

In the past six weeks, Israel has faced a barrage of rockets from Gaza and Lebanon as well as a rare rocket attack from Syria. The confrontations coincide with an escalation in Israel’s shadow war with its main enemy Iran, which supports groups committed to Israel’s destruction, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The rockets also coincide with the installation of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It has taken a more aggressive stance toward the Palestinians in the West Bank, threatening annexation and sending in commandos to arrest militants, leading to scores of deaths among the militants and some civilians.

At a security conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Netanyahu said, “Ninety-five per cent of Israel’s security problems stem from the fanatic Iranian regime: its nuclear threat, missile threat, the ring of terrorism and aggression that Iran is trying to circle us with.”

Overnight the Israeli military targeted 10 Islamic Jihad weapons manufacturing sites and military compounds. The Gaza Health Ministry said 13 were killed and UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, voiced alarm, condemned the deaths, and urged “all concerned to exercise maximum restraint and avoid an escalation.”

Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Islamic Jihad both said that “Israel will soon pay a heavy price for the killing of three Islamic Jihad leaders and 10 civilians.”

The Israeli Health Ministry opened clinics in the north and south to deal with civilians suffering from anxiety attacks.

Netanyahu also said on Tuesday, “We are working to prevent Iran from creating footholds around us, from creating a second Lebanon in Syria and to be ready for the possibility that Iran will open a multifront battle against us.”

Amid the tensions, the stock market fell the most since April 20 and the shekel weakened the most since April 11.

Bigger problem

“The security situation is something investors monitor while trading Israel, and the first reaction (mostly amid retail panic), may drag some negative direction,” said Adi Babani, head of international sales and trading at Meitav investment house. “If the situation escalates into a bigger problem, we may see a bigger pullback.”

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the strikes, carried out a week after a cease-fire was reached with Palestinian armed factions, targeted Khalil Bahtini, Jehad Ghanam and Tareq Izzeldeen - senior members of Islamic Jihad that the IDF said were responsible for recent rocket fire and attacks against Israelis.

At least 10 more people, including four women and four children, were killed in the strikes, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. It said Israel was blocking the entry of diagnostic medical equipment into Gazan hospitals, hindering their ability to treat at least 20 people injured in the morning strikes.

Among the children killed, according to Palestinian media reports, were Bahtini’s 5-year-old daughter and two of Izzeldeen’s young children, whose ages were not given.

Israeli military officials said they were aware of reports of civilian deaths and would investigate.

Palestinian militants responded with warnings of repercussions, raising the possibility of a drawn-out conflict. Ismail Haniyah, a senior leader of Hamas — the Islamist group that rules Gaza and is the dominant armed faction in the strip — said Israel would “pay the price.”

Israeli families begin evacuations

“Assassinating leaders with a treacherous operation will not bring security to the occupier, but rather more resistance,” Haniyah said in a statement.

Islamic Jihad said in a statement that “the Palestinian response to this heinous aggressive massacre will not be delayed.” It vowed that “the Al Quds Brigade and the resistance will never be complacent in the face of this pure blood.”

As Israeli military leaders said they were ready to call up reserve units, officials prepared civilians for the possibility of a prolonged escalation. Schools and universities across Israel were shuttered for the day, and roads near Gaza were closed.

Some Israeli families began evacuating from communities close to the Palestinian enclave, according to media reports, and some hospitals moved patients into fortified areas. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told local leaders in the area to be “prepared for every scenario.”

Izzeldeen Image Credit: AFP

Who were they?

Bahtini served as commander of the northern branch of the Al Quds Brigade, Islamic Jihad’s armed wing, replacing another leader who was assassinated by Israel in August.

Ghanam, who had survived five assassination attempts, trained Islamic Jihad militants in Lebanon and Sudan.

Izzeldeen, who was released in a 2011 prisoner exchange that traded more than 1,000 Palestinian inmates for an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas, was from Arraba, a village near the West Bank city of Jenin. The village was the hometown of a high-profile Islamic Jihad leader, Khader Adnan, whose death last week following an 87-day hunger strike in Israeli custody prompted an exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza.

Bahtini Image Credit: AFP

“The big question is Hamas and what they decide to do,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an IDF spokesman.

The United Nations’ chief representative in the region said he was “deeply alarmed” by the unexpected attacks and was working with all sides to head off a new surge in violence.

“I condemn the deaths of civilians in the Israeli airstrikes,” said Tor Wennesland, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. “This is unacceptable.”

The IDF said the attacks had been planned since the recent locket launches and were carried out when weather and intelligence on the commanders’ movements made the timing right.

“What we wanted to achieve, we achieved,” Hecht said. “We don’t know where it will go. We are ready for as long as it takes.”

Some 40 helicopters and planes took part in the strikes. In addition to the locations of the targets, they hit several other sites that Israel said were militant infrastructure, including a rocket-manufacturing site in the Khan Younis refugee camp and a cement plant.

Israel said the three men were involved in orchestrating recent attacks on Israel and planning for future ones. They were killed while in apartments - two in Gaza City, in the enclave’s crowded north, and one in Rafah to the south - and the strikes were designed for “pinpoint” precision, Hecht said.