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3 senior Hamas military leaders killed in Israeli airstrike on Gaza

By Jethro Mullen and Talal Abu Rahma, CNN
updated 11:24 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An Israeli airstrike hits people digging a grave in a cemetery, health officials say
  • Hamas says a bombing in Rafah kills 3 senior leaders of the Qassam Brigades
  • Israel says two of the dead were responsible for "major terror attacks against Israelis"
  • One of them played a "major role" in the capture of an Israeli soldier in 2006, the IDF says

Gaza (CNN) -- An Israeli airstrike on a house in Gaza overnight killed three high-ranking members of Hamas' military wing, the Qassam Brigades, the militant group said Thursday. Seven civilians were also killed.

The three members of the Brigades' 15-member military council were killed in a bombing in Rafah in southern Gaza, according to Hamas.

The announcement of their deaths comes the day after Hamas said an Israeli strike had killed the wife and at least two children of Mohammed Deif, the head of the military wing. Deif's 7-month-old son was killed, and the body of one of his daughters was removed from the rubble later, according to Hamas. Another of Deif's daughters is missing and believed to be buried in the rubble. The strike failed to kill Deif, Hamas said.

Role in capture of Israeli soldier

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues. Palestinians in Gaza celebrate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on Tuesday, August 26. After more than seven weeks of heavy fighting, Israel and Hamas agreed to an open-ended ceasefire that puts off dealing with core long-term issues.
Israel-Gaza crisis
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Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis Photos: Israel-Gaza crisis
Hamas: We're aiming for Tel Aviv airport

The militant group, which controls Gaza, said the leaders killed overnight were Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Attar and Mohammed Barhoum.

A crater the size of a residential block was left at the site of the airstrike.

According to Palestinian officials, Israeli airstrikes have killed 27 since midnight local time (5 p.m. ET Wednesday).

Hamas vowed revenge for their deaths.

"The assassination of the Qassam leaders is a great Israeli crime that will not succeed in breaking the will of our people or even weaken the resistance, and Israel will pay the price," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Al-Attar, the commander of the Qassam Brigades in Rafah, is believed to be the most senior of the three.

The Israeli military said it had confirmed that it killed the three men. It described al-Attar and Abu Shamala as "high-ranking Hamas commanders responsible for major terror attacks against Israelis."

Al-Attar played a "major role" in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006, the Israel Defense Forces said on its Twitter account. Shalit was held captive until a deal was struck for his release in 2011 in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

"This morning's strike sends a clear message to those responsible for planning attacks," IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said in a statement. "We will strike those that have terrorized our communities, towns and cities, we will pursue the perpetrators of abduction of our soldiers and teenagers, and we will succeed in restoring security to the State of Israel."

Renewed fighting

The return to violence between Israel and Hamas began Tuesday after a cease-fire and peace talks in Cairo fell apart, with each side blaming the other for the breakdown.

The Egyptian-brokered negotiations were aimed at finding a lasting end to the current Gaza conflict, which has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, around 70% of them civilians, according to the United Nations. The fighting, which erupted in early July, has killed 67 people on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers.

But the two sides failed to reach a compromise, with Israel calling for Gaza to be demilitarized and Hamas requesting, among other things, the lifting of Israel's economic blockade on Gaza.

Humanitarian groups have warned of a dire situation in Gaza, where tens of thousands of people have been left homeless amid the destruction caused by the conflict.

The Israeli military said Thursday that more than 225 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza since the truce collapsed this week. Over the same period, Israeli forces have attacked around 150 targets in Gaza, the IDF said.

One airstrike Thursday hit a cemetery in Gaza City, where a group of people were digging a grave for relatives, Palestinian health officials said. The attack killed six people and injured others, paramedics told the Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV.

Hamas threatens airport

"Our policy is simple: If you shoot, you will get attacked," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday. "If you try more, you will get double."

Israel will not stop its efforts against Hamas "until we can ensure full safety and security" for people in Israel's south, the prime minister said.

The Qassam Brigades on Wednesday warned international airlines to refrain from landing at or taking off from Ben Gurion Airport in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv from Thursday morning onward.

U.S. aviation authorities briefly banned U.S. carriers from flying to and from the airport in late July after a Hamas rocket struck nearby. Many international airlines followed suit, canceling flights to and from Tel Aviv.

But flights picked up again after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lifted the ban. Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, had lobbied Washington to reverse the extraordinary order.

READ: Six decades of war

READ: Gaza's zoo animals caught in crossfire

READ: Israelis jailed for refusing to serve

Talal Abu Rahma reported from Gaza, and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN's Samira Said contributed to this report.

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