At least 13 Palestinians, including three commanders of the militant group Islamic Jihad, have been killed in Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian health official said six women and four children were among the dead. Another 20 people were injured.
Israel said it had launched an operation targeting militants who posed an imminent threat to its citizens. Islamic Jihad has vowed revenge and Gaza-based militants are expected to respond with rocket fire into Israel.
Israel officials are said to be preparing for days of fighting. The strikes were the deadliest since three days of fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad last August.
Islamic Jihad is the biggest militant group next to Hamas in Gaza. It has been responsible for many of the rocket attacks Israel from the territory in recent years and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
There was a serious flare-up last week, as Islamic Jihad and other groups fired several barrages of rockets into Israel over two days following the death in an Israeli prison of a Palestinian hunger striker. The Israeli military carried out air strikes in response.
The latest strikes took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when 40 Israeli warplanes and helicopters attacked in several waves across Gaza, hitting homes and causing panic among residents. Pictures showed at least two apartments with their fronts ripped away and others damaged.
Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, said three of its commanders were killed, along with their families. It identified them as Jihad Shaker al-Ghannam, secretary of the al-Quds Brigades’ Military Council; Khalil Salah al-Bahtini, the commander of its Northern Region, and Tariq Muhammad Ezzedine, who it said was “one of the heads of military action” in the occupied West Bank.
“As we mourn our martyr leaders, along with their mujahideen wives and a number of their children, we affirm that the blood of the martyrs will increase our resolve,” the al-Quds Brigades said. “We will not leave our positions, and the resistance will continue, God willing.”
Israel’s Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said: “Any terrorist who harms Israeli citizens will be made to regret it.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Bahtini was the senior operational officer of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and that he was responsible for the rocket fire from Gaza in the last month. “He was an imminent threat to the security of Israeli civilians,” it added.
It added that Ghannam was a senior member of Islamic Jihad’s rocket force and that Ezzedine was in charge of co-ordination with the group’s operatives in the West Bank and planning attacks on Israeli civilians there.
The IDF said its aircraft also struck 10 sites used to manufacture weapons and six Islamic Jihad military facilities.
Spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht said the operation had “achieved what we wanted to achieve”, according to AFP news agency. When asked about child casualties, he replied: “If there were some tragic deaths, we’ll look into it.”