Gaza militant chief among three dead in Israel air strikes
A leader of a hardline Islamist group that has claimed a spate of rocket attacks on Israel in recent days was among three Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza, sources on both sides said on Sunday.
Sheikh Hisham al-Saedini, 43, also known as Abu al-Waleed al-Maqdisi, one of the founding members of Salafist group the Mujahedeen Shura Council, was killed in a strike late on Saturday on the north Gaza town of Jabaliya, Palestinian security sources said.
Fellow Salafist militant Fayek Abu Jazar, 42, died with him as they rode a motorbike. Two other people, one of them a 12-year-old boy, were wounded.
A second air strike early on Sunday killed Yasser Mohammad al-Atal, 23, of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the sources said. One other person was wounded.
An Israeli military statement said that its "aircraft targeted a terrorist squad in the southern Gaza Strip in its final preparations to fire rockets at Israel. A hit was confirmed."
The strike came hours after Gaza militants fired a rocket that exploded in an open field in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, a military spokeswoman said.
Born in Egypt but a Jordanian national, Saedini was considered one of the most important Salafist leaders in Gaza.
The Mujahedeen Shura Council, a recently founded Salafist coalition, has claimed a spate of rocket attacks on Israel in recent days.
Saedini was detained by the Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza following the kidnap and murder of Italian peace activist Vittorio Arrigoni last year but was released in August following Jordanian intervention.
The Salafist groups accuse Hamas of weakness in the face of Israel and of failing to apply Islamic law.
The Israeli army said that Saedini's organisation was implicated in a series of attacks, including one in January 2009 that killed an Israeli soldier, and that Saedini himself was "responsible for terrorist activity in the Gaza Strip including firing of rockets and the placement of explosive devices."
"Since his release and in recent days, Saedini had been planning a complex attack to be carried out along the Sinai border, a collaboration between Gaza-based militants and Salafi operatives in Sinai," a statement from the military read.
The latest wave of tit-for-tat violence on the Gaza-Israel border began a week ago, when Israeli warplanes raided the southern city of Rafah, targeting two men the military said were "global jihad activists".
The two were critically wounded and one later died. Another eight people were wounded, among them five children.
Following that strike, the armed wings of Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of fire at southern Israel in a rare show of force given that the two groups normally observe a de facto truce on rocket fire on Israel.
On Wednesday the Israeli air force struck targets in northern Gaza after rocket fire that was claimed by the Mujahedeen Shura Council.
And on Thursday, Israeli warplanes raided a training camp of the Hamas military wing, several hours after Gaza militants fired two rockets into southern Israel.
The last time Hamas militants fired on Israel was during a flareup in June when militant groups fired more than 150 rockets, wounding five people, and Israel hit back with air strikes that killed 15 Palestinians.
According to the Israeli military, more than 500 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired at southern Israel from Gaza this year.