Operation “Pillar of Defence” began with a surgical strike on a car carrying the commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Iranian-armed Islamist movement which controls Gaza and dominates a score of smaller armed groups.
Within minutes of the death of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, big explosions were rocking Gaza, as the Israeli air force struck at selected targets just before sundown, blasting plumes of smoke and debris high above the crowded city.
Panicking civilians ran for cover and the death toll mounted quickly. Nine people including three children were killed, the health ministry said, and about 40 people were wounded.
Army tanks shelled border areas of Gaza in south and the Israeli navy shelled a Hamas security position from the sea.
Hamas stuck back, firing at least four Grad rockets at the southern city of Beersheva in what it called its initial response. Israel reported damage but no casualties.
The escalation in Gaza came in a week when Israel fired at Syrian artillery positions it said had fired into the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights amid a civil war in Syria that has brought renewed instability to Lebanon.
Egypt, whose new Islamist government is still honouring the 1979 peace agreement with Israel, condemned the raids on Gaza as a threat to regional security and withdrew its ambassador from Israel. It also summoned the Israeli envoy to Cairo to deliver a protest and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Russia called for an end to the raids.
A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew increasingly more intense and frequent.
Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 began with a week of air attacks and shelling, followed by a land invasion of the blockaded coastal strip, sealed off at sea by the Israeli navy. Some 1 400 Palestinians were killed and 13 Israelis died.
Hamas said Jaabari, who ran the organisation's armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with a Hamas photographer when their car was blown apart by an Israeli missile.
The charred wreckage of a car could be seen belching flames, as emergency crews picked up what appeared to be body parts.
Israel confirmed it had carried out the attack and announced there was more to come. Reuters witnesses saw Hamas security compounds and police stations blasted apart.
“Today we relayed a clear message to the Hamas organisation and other terrorist organisations,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “And if there is a need, the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is prepared to broaden the operation. We will continue to do everything in order to protect our citizens.”
Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio.
“The occupation has opened the gates of hell,” Hamas's armed wing said. Smaller groups also vowed to strike back.
“Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.
Southern Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza were on full alert, and schools were ordered closed for Thursday. About one million Israelis live in range of Gaza's relatively primitive but lethal rockets, supplemented in recent months by longer-range, more accurate systems.
“The days we face in the south will, in my estimation, prove protracted,” Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel's chief military spokesperson, told Channel 2 TV.
“The home front must brace itself resiliently.”
Mordechai said Israel was both responding to a surge in Palestinian rocket salvoes earlier this week and trying to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian factions from building up their arsenals further.
Among the targets of Wednesday's air strikes were underground caches of longer-range Hamas rockets, he said.
Asked if Israel might send in ground forces, Mordechai said: “There are preparations, and if we are required to, the option of an entry by ground is available.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres briefed US President Barack Obama on the operation, Peres's office said in a statement. He told Obama that Jaabari was a “mass-murderer” and his killing was Israel's response to Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.
“Israel is not interested in stoking the flames, but for the past five days there has been constant missile fire at Israel and mothers and children cannot sleep quietly at night,” said Peres, who visited the border town of Sderot earlier.
In the flare-up that was prelude to Wednesday's offensive, more than 115 missiles were fired into southern Israel from Gaza and Israeli planes launched numerous strikes.
Seven Palestinians, three of them gunmen, were killed. Eight Israeli civilians were hurt by rocket fire and four soldiers wounded by an anti-tank missile.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi to call an emergency meeting of the League's Council to denounce “dangerous Israeli escalation and brutal aggression on our people in the Gaza Strip”.
The leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, called on Arab states, especially Egypt, to halt the assault.
Egypt's foreign ministry condemned the Israeli strikes, saying any further escalation “could have negative repercussions on the security and stability of the region”.
Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet said Jaabari led Hamas' takeover of Gaza in 2007, when the militant Islamist group ousted fighters of the Fatah movement of its great rival, the Western-backed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
It said he instigated the attack that led to the capture of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in a kidnap raid from Gaza in 2006. Jaabari was also the man who handed Shalit over to Israel in a prisoner exchange five years after his capture.
Israel holds a general election on January 22 and Netanyahu has pledged to retaliate harshly against Hamas. But Israel is also wary of the reaction from Morsi's Egypt, whose ruling Muslim Brotherhood is the spiritual mentor of Hamas.
Hamas has been emboldened by its rise to power, viewing Morsi as a “safety net” who will not permit a second Israeli thrashing of Gaza, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
Hamas is also supported by Iran, which Israel regards as a rising threat to its own existence due to its nuclear programme.
Helped by the contraband trade through tunnels from Egypt, Gaza militias have smuggled in better weapons.
But their estimated 35 000 Palestinian fighters are still no match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175 000, with 450 000 in reserve. - Reuters