ISRAEL'S confrontation with Hamas threatened to escalate into war last night after 20 air strikes rocked the Gaza Strip, killing the Islamist political party's military chief and nine other Palestinians.
The Israeli army said "Operation Pillar of Defence" was designed to stop Hamas launching rocket attacks on its territory and that "if necessary" Israel was willing to "initiate a ground operation" inside Gaza.
Ahmed al-Jaabari, the commander of Hamas's military wing, and another official were killed as they drove through Gaza City. The Israel Defence Forces ( IDF) posted video footage online showing the moment his car was struck.
Israel bombed 19 other targets across the territory, triggering the most serious confrontation since the Gaza war of 2008-09 that claimed at least 1,200 lives.
A child of six and a baby of 11 months were among the dead, said the Gaza health ministry, adding that another 45 people were wounded.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said the killing of Jaabari had sent a "clear message" to Hamas, adding, "if it becomes necessary we are prepared to expand the operation".
Other Israeli officials made clear that yesterday's raids marked the "beginning" of an operation, adding that further air strikes were more likely than a ground incursion in the immediate future. A military statement however, said that "all options are on the table".
Hamas promised to retaliate, saying that Israel's actions had "opened the gates of hell".
The air strikes marked the culmination of a period of rising tensions between Israel and Hamas. About 120 missiles had been fired into Israel since Saturday, wounding four Israelis and Mr Netanyahu had promised that militants could pay the "highest price" for the attacks.
Questions were raised over the timing of the air strikes, with the Mr Netanyahu facing re-election in January.
Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Israel in response to the air strike. And Israel's ambassador to Egypt has also left Cairo. Relations between Israel and Egypt have deteriorated since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. (© Daily Telegraph, London)