Attar (circled) seen with kidnapped IDF soldi
Attar (circled) seen with kidnapped IDF soldiReuters

The armed wing of Hamas announced Thursday that three of its senior commanders were killed in a pre-dawn Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades in a statement identified the leaders as Mohammed Abu Shamalah, Raed al-Attar and Mohammed Barhum. Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said eight people were killed in the strike.

Witnesses said a four-storey family home was completely destroyed in a series of air strikes.

The airstrike was carried out based on intelligence provided by the Shabak (Israel Security Agency), which led to the identification of two central Hamas figures.

Most senior commanders in southern Gaza

Mohammed Abu Shamalah, 40, was the most senior Hamas commander in southern Gaza, classified by security services as the head of the "Southern Command" of Hamas. Abu Shamalah was responsible for the areas of Rafiah and Khan Younis, and is a longtime friend and associate of Ezzedine al-Qassam's elusive leader, Mohammed Deif, who was himself targeted in an IDF strike yesterday - a strike he is believed to have survived.

He was also a close associate of Raed al-Atar, another leading Hamas commander eliminated in this morning's strike.

Together, they have been involved in dozens of deadly terrorist attacks since the 1990s. Most famously, the pair planned and coordinated the 2006 attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza in which two IDF soldiers were killed and Gilad Shalit was taken hostage.

Abu Shamalah was also behind a major attack on the same crossing in 2008 involving booby-trapped jeeps, which injured 13 soldiers.

During Operation Protective Edge Abu Shamalah was active in coordinating operations against the IDF, and was behind an infiltration by 13 terrorists via a terror tunnel from Gaza into Israel on July 17.

Raed al-Attar, also 40 years old, was the Brigade Commander of Hamas's southern command in Gaza, and one of the most senior figures within its "military wing". 

Attar was the mastermind of the Shalit abduction, and was also one of the key architects of Hamas's "terror tunnel" network in southern Gaza. He is said to have played an important role in coordinating the construction of tunnels elsewhere in Gaza as well.

Attar is also believed to have coordinated the attack in Rafah earlier this month in which IDF officer Hadar Goldin was killed and his body abducted, in breach of a 24-hour ceasefire in force at the time.

Together, the two men represented the very top echelons of Hamas's presence in southern Gaza.

The third terrorist, Mohammed Barhum, was a less senior Ezzedine al-Qassam commander. He was not the intended target of the operation but was killed while meeting with Attar and Abu Shamalah.

The strike comes just one day after Ezzedine al-Qassam's leader, Mohammed Deif, was targeted in an assassination attempt. Deif's wife and son were killed in that air strike, but Hamas says Deif himself is still alive - although it has not released details on his precise condition.

A Hamas spokesperson further claimed that an alleged "death certificate" purporting to show the death of the terrorist mastermind is a forgery.

Tuesday saw 170 rockets fired at Israel by Gazan terrorists, although Tuesday night was markedly quieter, with just one rocket launched at the southern Israeli town of Ofakim. At least one rocket was also fired this morning into southern Israel, falling in an open field in the Eshkol Region.

Prior to this morning's elimination of three Hamas commanders, the IDF said it struck 20 terror targets overnight, which Gaza medical sources claimed killed four people.