GAZA STRIP – It was an assassination that went wrong. It wasn't meant to be.
Five Israeli special forces soldiers were despatched to Gaza in civilian clothes in a civilian car. From the car, they fired on and killed Hamas Commander Nour el-Deen Baraka.
Members of Hamas accompanying Baraka returned fire at the car which sped off, with Hamas members in tow. The Israeli forces called in air cover that was standing by. Shortly after, a series of air strikes killed the pursuing Hamas members, all six of them. The Israeli forces escaped back into Israel. However one of the soldiers was killed in the operation, and another received moderate injuries.
And so has followed the retaliatory rockets. Overnight, militant groups in Gaza fired more than 300 rockets into Israel, many of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome. An Israeli man was killed when a building was destroyed in Ashkelon, according to ZAKA volunteers. Around 53 other Israelis were injured, at least two of them seriously, according to the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz.
"In response, the IDF deployed fighter planes, helicopters and tanks in Gaza and killed three Palestinians, striking over seventy Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets," The Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday. Later the newspaper updated that number to 150 targets and said the strikes were ongoing – and that wasn't all. "IDF troops and tanks are being mobilized by the Gaza Strip border on Tuesday morning, in anticipation of a possible ground invasion inside Gaza," The Jerusalem Post reported.
One of the targets struck overnight was the Al-Aqsa television broadcasting station in Gaza City which the IDF said it had destroyed. Hamas said it was an attack on journalism. Israel said the network was being used for propaganda.
Hundreds of Red Alert sirens meantime were heard across southern Israel, panicking Israeli residents into seeking refuge in air raid shelters.
The question Israeli media is asking is, why did Israel carry out an assassination just as Egypt was shoring up a ceasefire between the parties, and a number of countries including Israel and the United States are trying to do something about the humanitarian crisis in the Strip?
What was so urgent about a Hamas commander who was apparently, according to the Israeli army, linked to the Hamas tunnel developments?
We don't know because Israel says the operation was 'secret.' The identity of the soldier killed was not, and will not be revealed. It too is 'secret.'
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman told The Washington Post, the operation, "like many others similar to it," was part of an ongoing effort against "different terrorist organizations." He would not reveal what the mission was but said it was not to kill or kidnap.
For its part, Hamas revealed its version of what took place.
"A special IDF force penetrated into Gaza at three kilometers depth with a civil vehicle near the Isma'il Abu Shanab mosque, east of Khan Yunis," Hamas's military wing said in an official statement released on Monday.
"The force killed Nour el-Deen Baraka, Hamas's military wing brigade commander. After the IDF force was revealed, the IAF aircraft began firing to allow the soldiers to withdraw, which led to fatalities on our side."
"The incident is ongoing, and our forces are operating against the Zionist dangerous aggression," the Hamas statement said.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman held an emergency meeting at the Kirya headquarters which went through until 11 o'clock on Monday night. In attendance were Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman, and senior defense department officials.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris, cut his visit short and headed back to Israel.
Hamas praised the efforts of its military wing according to Israeli news service Ynet which published a statement from the organization.
"We welcome the brave resistance that is facing the cowardly Israeli attack. The resistance's activity is an act of heroism, which emphasizes it is alert, prepared, and is carrying out its national duty by defending our nation and forces the enemy to pay for its crimes," the statement said.
What happens next is anyone's guess. In Israel, speculation is mounting that another war will be launched on Gaza. "Hamas has crossed a red line," the IDF said.
"The Hamas terrorist organization has crossed a red line in their attacks against the sovereignty of the State of Israel and its citizens over the past hours," the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Brig.-Gen. (res.) Kamil Abu Rukun said Tuesday.
"The State of Israel will continue to respond with an iron fist against all terrorist activity or rocket fire coming from the Hamas terrorist organization," he wrote on COGAT's Arabic-language Facebook page, "el-Munasek." "Residents of Gaza, look carefully at the pictures from Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – a picture is worth a thousand words," he said.
It would appear what Hamas actually did was retaliate against an assassination which was botched and resulted not only in the assassination of one of its commanders, but six other members of the organization that resisted the unprovoked attack, which took place inside Gaza, 3 kilometres from the border.
The United States however saw it differently.
"We are aware of reports of ongoing rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza against targets in Israel," a State Department statement said.
"We condemn these attacks and call for their immediate halt. We stand with Israel as it defends itself against these attacks," the statement added.
Earlier on Monday U.S. Special envoy Jason Greenblatt also blamed Hamas.
"Terrorists in Gaza are again attacking Israel with tools of war. These rocket & mortar attacks on Israeli towns must be condemned by all. Israel is forced once again into military action to defend its citizens. We stand with Israel as it defends itself against these attacks," Greenblatt posted on Twitter.
"Hamas' activities continue to prove they don't really care about the Palestinians of Gaza & their only interest is to use them for political purposes. Even Palestinian lives seem not to matter to Hamas."
"The world has grown tired of Hamas' violence and the violence of other bad actors in Gaza. This violence prevents any real help for the people of Gaza," Greenblatt tweeted.
Israel's ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon appealed to the UN Security Council on Tuesday to condemn the firing of rockets at Israel. There was no mention of the assassination, or the Israeli response to the retaliation by Hamas.
"After a day of rocket barrages, there is no room for any other definition of Hamas except that of terrorist organization. To the world it presents its civilians as victims, but then uses them as human shields," Danon said in a letter to the Security Council
"Israel cooperated with all international bodies, including the UN, but the aggressive escalation from Gaza indicates that there are elements pushing for another round of violence that will cause destruction and losses within the Gaza Strip," he added.
The statement could be considered as a prelude to another war. Most international parties would see a fourth war as a reckless, unnecessary and belligerent measure.
It is unclear how parties continue to term such an offensive as a war - on one hand by a country of a population of eight million people with one of the best-equipped and most powerful militaries in the world with the latest and most sophisticated weaponry available, a fleet of F-16s and F-35s, helicopter gunships, heavy artillery a well-equipped battle-trained Army, Navy and Air Force - pitted in a 'war' against an impoverished enclave of 2 million people (55% of which, according to the UN are children), that have been subjected to an 11-year blockade, and are equipped with primitive guns, rockets which are unable to be aimed properly, rocks to be thrown - and to combat the F-16s and F-35s - there are of course the incendiary kites and balloons.
Any such offensive would not be a 'war' – more likely, it would be a war crime.