GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel assassinated a Hamas strongman Thursday in its first assault on the top leadership of Gaza's rulers, escalating a crushing aerial offensive even as it declared it was ready to launch a ground invasion.
The airstrike targeted the eight-story apartment building that was home to Nizar Rayan, 52, ranked among Hamas' top five decision-makers in Gaza. The attack killed 12 other people including two of Rayan's four wives and four of his 12 children, Palestinian health officials said. The Muslim faith allows men to have up to four wives.
While escalating its 6-day-old military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, Israel also appeared to be sounding out a possible diplomatic exit from its campaign by demanding international monitors as a key term of any future truce.
The offensive is meant to crush Gaza militants who have been terrorizing southern Israel with rocket fire that is reaching closer to the country's heartland than ever before.
In launching the campaign on Saturday, Israel made it clear that no one in Hamas was immune and Thursday's strike drove that point home. The airstrike blew a huge hole in the side of the building where Rayan lived and sent a thick plume of smoke into the air.
Hamas leaders went into hiding before Israel launched its operation, but Rayan was known for openly defying Israel.
Hamas threatened to take revenge against Israeli soldiers who were massed along the border with Gaza, waiting for a signal to invade.
"We are waiting for you to enter Gaza to kill you or make you into Schalits," it said, referring to Sgt. Gilad Schalit who was seized by Hamas-affiliated militants 2-1/2 years ago and remains in captivity.