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Three senior Hamas leaders killed in Gaza as violence continues

Three are thought to be among eight Palestinians were killed in pre-dawn air strikes on Thursday
A displaced Palestinian woman holds her new born after returning from a hospital to a UN school in Beit Lahia (AFP)

The armed wing of Hamas announced Thursday that three of its senior commanders were killed in a pre-dawn Israeli air strike in southern Gaza that medics said killed seven people.

The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades identified the three as Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Atar and Mohammed Barhum.

Witnesses said the strike, which took place in the southern city of Rafah on the Egyptian border, levelled a four-storey family home in Rafah.

The deadly raid strike came after the wife and infant son of the Brigades' top military leader, Mohammed Deif, were killed in an Israeli strike on a multi-storey building in Gaza City late Tuesday.

It also comes just hours before the armed wing of Hamas, in a statement on Wednesday, warned foreign airlines against flying into Tel Aviv and threatened to step up its rocket fire against Israel.

"We are warning international airlines and press them to stop flying into Ben Gurion airport from 6 am (0300 GMT) Thursday," said in a televised speech.

Hamas also accused Tel Aviv of deliberately sabotaging any prospect for a long-term truce.  

In a televised speech, Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obeida said Israel had falsely claimed that rockets were launched from Gaza as a pretext for the Israelis to breach the ceasefire.   

"We are calling on the Palestinian delegation to withdraw immediately from Cairo and not to return," said Abu Obeida in a speech broadcast on Hamas's Al-Aqsa TV channel.

"There will be no return to talks after today and any move in this direction will never achieve any result," he added.

"The enemy lost a golden chance to reach a ceasefire with limited demands, for which it will pay after today."

Since 8 July when Israel's military onslaught began, 2,047 Palestinians (mainly civilians) and 67 (mainly soldiers) on the Israeli side were killed. Palestinian emergency services say more than 10,240 Palestinians have been wounded.

The UN says around three-quarters of the victims in Gaza are civilians. Sixty-four of the Israeli dead were soldiers.

Israel steps up raids, Gaza buries dead

Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza Wednesday as mourners buried the wife and child of Hamas's top military commander.

So far, 20 Gazans have been killed on Tuesday as Israeli F16 fighter jets carried out air strikes, Palestinian medics say.

Palestinian fighters have also resumed rocket attacks against Israel.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said Gaza fighters had fired 159 rockets, of which 119 hit southern and central Israel while another 27 were shot down. There have been no reports of casualties or damage.

The army had hit 92 targets across Gaza, she added.

Several thousand mourners joined the funeral procession for Deif's 27-year-old wife and seven-month-old son in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

The mourners buried Widad and her son Ali, who died alongside another woman and a teenager when a missile slammed into a six-storey building in Gaza City late on Tuesday.

Their bodies were wrapped in green Hamas flags and they were carried to the cemetery with the bodies of two men killed in a strike on a motorcycle.

Grief-stricken, Widad's father Mustafa Harb Asfura carried his tiny grandson into the mosque then to the cemetery, his body wrapped in a white sheet exposing his white face with an injury to the eye.

"My daughter knew she would die a martyr when she decided to marry Mohammed Deif," he told AFP.

In Israel, Interior Minister Gideon Saar justified the attack, calling Deif -- who has escaped five previous assassination attempts -- a legitimate target.

"Mohammed Deif deserves to die just like (the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama) bin Laden. He is an arch murderer and as long as we have an opportunity we will try to kill him," Saar told army radio.

Among the 20 killed since the truce collapsed were nine children and three women, one of who was heavily-pregnant, said emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra.

That number includes the woman's unborn baby, whom medics tried but ultimately failed to save, he said.

Israeli FM seeks 'toppling Hamas'

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Hamas was dictating the pace of the conflict, calling for military action to overpower the movement.

"There is no other option other than decisive action with one meaning - toppling Hamas," he wrote on his Facebook page.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the leaders of Hamas are legitimate targets and warned that "no one is immune from our fire".

"Our policy is the following: if Hamas fires, we will hit back with more force and if they don't understand today, they will understand tomorrow and if not tomorrow then after tomorrow," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu had ordering his delegation back from Cairo, and most of the Palestinian negotiators, including delegation head Azzam al-Ahmed, also left Cairo.

"We are leaving... but we have not pulled out of negotiations," Ahmed told AFP, saying the Palestinians had handed a truce proposal to Israel and would not return to Cairo until they received an answer.

The Egyptian foreign ministry expressed "profound regret at the breach of the ceasefire" and said it was working to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

And Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi accused Israel of "blocking" all attempts to end the Gaza conflict.

"Israel is blocking any kind of agreement leading to calm" in Gaza, he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas landed in Doha ahead of talks on Thursday with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal for a meeting set up before the ceasefire collapsed, the official QNA news agency said.