GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A Hamas militant leader who has topped Israel’s most-wanted list for a decade was badly wounded and underwent four hours of spinal surgery Wednesday after being wounded in an Israeli airstrike, security officials said.
The top fugitive, Mohammed Deif, could end up paralyzed, Palestinian security officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss his condition. Wednesday’s blast marked the army’s fourth attempt to kill Deif, held responsible for suicide bombings in Israel. In a 2002 missile strike, he lost an eye.
At least 23 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Wednesday. And an Israeli airstrike early Thursday destroyed the building housing the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Foreign Ministry.
Nine members of one family were killed in Wednesday’s airstrike, with an Israeli F-16 warplane dropping a quarter-ton bomb on a home in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood. The strike was by far the deadliest in Israel’s 15-day military campaign in Gaza, launched after Hamas-allied militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier.
Israel’s air force targeted the two-story house of Nabil Abu Salmiyeh, a Hamas activist and university lecturer, after getting intelligence information that the leaders of Hamas’ military wing, responsible for the abduction of the soldier, were meeting there. Palestinian security officials said seven or eight top Hamas officials were present.
The blast wounded 37 people, three critically, said Health Minister Bassem Naim. Hospital officials said Raed Saad, a top Hamas operative, was among the wounded, but details of his condition weren’t released.
Abu Salmiyeh, his wife, and seven of his nine children, ages 4-18, all died.
“I heard a really loud explosion and then I felt the ceiling fall on top of me. I was buried under the rubble,” said Awad Abu Salmiyeh, 19, who along with an older brother was the only family member to survive.
The bombardment brought down the house and buried residents under the rubble. Rescue workers pulled out the body of a 4-year-old clad in a red T-shirt, whose head was blown open and whose lower body was torn off.
Hamas initially said its leaders had emerged safely from the 2:30 a.m. attack, but Palestinian security officials later said Deif and several other leading militants were hurt.
Hamas militants took over the intensive care unit at Gaza’s Shifa Hospital on Wednesday. Several people were being treated, including some in critical condition, medical officials said. Black-uniformed Hamas gunmen stood guard. A large bearded man blocked people from entering, permitting only a team of doctors and top Hamas officials such as Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar to pass.
The guard angrily declined to say who was being treated.
Israeli officials accused the militants of using civilians as a shield by meeting in a private home.
“Israel is compelled to take action against those planning to unleash lethal terror attacks against Israeli citizens,” said David Baker, an official in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “Palestinian terrorist leaders continue to take refuge among and hide behind their own civilians.”
Israel launched its military campaign after Palestinian militants captured the Israeli soldier June 25. Israel has rejected demands that it release hundreds of prisoners in exchange for the soldier and has instead stepped up its offensive in Gaza.
As the fighting entered its third week Wednesday, Israeli troops killed at least 14 other Palestinians in four separate incidents, including Israeli tank fire and a gunfight in the central Gaza Strip.
More than 60 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive, most of them gunmen, but about a dozen have been civilians. One Israeli soldier also has died, shot by fellow troops.
Acting on behalf of Arab nations, Qatar circulated a revised draft U.N. Security Council resolution Wednesday demanding that Israel end its offensive in the Gaza Strip and release the Palestinian officials it has arrested.
The draft, amended to overcome concerns from the United States and France, now includes a direct demand for the release of the captured Israeli soldier and urges the Palestinians to stop firing rockets at Israel.
The Security Council has struggled for almost two weeks on how to respond to Israel’s offensive in Gaza. An earlier draft from Qatar was rejected because several members of the council said it was too biased against Israel.