TheBlaze’s Sharona Schwartz contributed to this report.

Israel Assassinates Top Hamas Commander in Airstrike | Ahmed Jabari

Palestinian firefighters extinguish fire from the car of Ahmaed Jaabari, head of the military wing of the Hamas movement, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, after it was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on November 14, 2012. The top Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jaabari was killed in an Israeli air strike , medics and a Hamas source told. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian witnesses say Israeli airstrikes have hit a series of targets across Gaza City, shortly after the assassination of the top Hamas commander. According to the Israeli military, the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari is part of a reboot of the nation’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders.

Military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch confirmed that the attack is the “start of a broader operation.” The event is significant, as Jabari is the most senior Hamas official to be killed since an Israeli invasion of Gaza took place four years ago. For quite some time, the militant leader has been on Israel’s most-wanted list, as he was blamed for numerous past attacks.

Fifty-two-year-old Jaabari previously spent 13 years in Israeli jail for terrorist activity. As head of Hamas’ military wing, all regional Hamas commanders in Gaza answered to him. He was a key player involved in the negotiations over the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was held in Gaza for five years and appeared next to Shalit on the day he was released and transferred to Egyptian, and later Israeli hands.

Responding to the airstrikes, Hamas put out a statement claiming that the assassination ”has opened the gates of hell” (watch video of the killing).

Israel Assassinates Top Hamas Commander in Airstrike | Ahmed Jabari

People look at a wreckage of the car in which was killed Ahmed Jabari, head of the Hamas military wing in Gaza City, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The Israeli military said its assassination of the Hamas military commander marks the beginning of an operation against Gaza militants. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car exploded. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell.

Hamas police cordoned off the area around a hospital where at least one body from the strike was taken. It was draped in a white sheet, with a burned leg poking out. Hamas said another man was killed in the airstrike. Schools in southern Israel and Gaza will remain closed on Thursday, as violence continues.

Gaza sources tell Arab Affairs Analyst Ehud Yaari reports that Jaabari’s colleagues had been warning him in recent days to lay low due to the expectation Israel was planning to renew its policy of “targeted killings.”

Israel Channel 2 Correspondent Udi Segal said his sources told him that earlier in the day, Likud Minister Benny Begin was sent on an interview with Israel Radio to report that this week’s violent exchange between Gaza and Israel had ended. This, the sources said, was an intentional ploy to lull Hamas to drop its guard, which apparently worked.

Hamas security officials say two Hamas training facilities were among the targets in the Wednesday afternoon bombings. Plumes of smoke are rising in the air, and people are running in panic through the streets as militants angrily fire their weapons in the air.

Israel Assassinates Top Hamas Commander in Airstrike | Ahmed Jabari

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli mission is said to be a response that was launched after days of heavy rocket fire from Gaza. Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Israel Channel 2 that more than 100 rockets had been launched into Israel this week and that the nation had lost its ability to prevent them from entering. This operations is clearly a reaction to that fact — one that has been given no definitive timeframe, although one Israel Radio correspondent claims it could last between a few days and one week.

Israel Assassinates Top Hamas Commander in Airstrike | Ahmed Jabari

On Wednesday afternoon, IDF’s official spokespeople took to Twitter, where a dire warning was issued to Hamas: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

As for the Jabari killing, military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said he was identified by “precise intelligence” gathered over several months.

Israel Assassinates Top Hamas Commander in Airstrike | Ahmed Jabari

A file picture dated on October 18, 2011 shows Ahmed Jaabari at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.

Critics say they invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.

During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.

Israeli aircraft have previously assassinated the previous commander of Hamas’ military wing, Salah Shehadeh, the movement’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and dozens of other senior Hamas military commanders.

The practice set off a continuous wave of criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, particularly the strike that killed Shehadeh — a one-ton bomb that killed 14 other people, most of them children.

Israel has said that it is willing, if needed, to use ground troops to stop violence coming from Gaza. Bloomberg has more:

Israel carried out a series of air strikes in the Gaza Strip today, killing the leader of Hamas’s militant wing, and said it was ready to use ground troops if needed to end attacks on its citizens.

The Israeli army said it called up reserves in advance of any possible infantry assault. It said it targeted Ahmed al- Jabari in a “surgical strike” and identified him as a “senior Hamas operative who served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks,” according to an e-mailed statement.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who directed Israel’s 2008 ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, yesterday said he was considering new measures to stop increased missile attacks from the Hamas-ruled territory. The violence sent oil prices higher.

Israel Channel 2 has also reported that incoming rockets were potentially fired toward the area of Beer Sheba (sirens were heard there as well). The IDF Twitter account reports, “Initial reports indicate that the Iron Dome has intercepted a number of rockets above a major Israeli city.”

This story has been updated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.