|Israel's strike devastated vehicle occupied by head of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza [AFP]
An Israeli airstrike in Gaza has killed the commander of one of the groups behind the abduction of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held captive for more than five years and freed in a prisoner swap for more than 1,000 Palestinians.
The attack on Friday marked the highest profile Israeli strike against the Gaza strip in several months and immediately sparked retaliatory rocket attacks toward Israel, raising fears of a violent escalation after a period of relative calm.
The Israeli military said it targeted Zuhair al-Qaissi, the commander of the armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee, a large armed group closely aligned with Gaza's Hamas rulers.
The explosion tore apart al-Qaissi's blue sedan and also killed his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini, himself a top PRC field commander.
Another low-ranking Gaza fighter was also seriously wounded in the attack. Hours later, Israeli military killed two more fighters that it said were about to launch rockets.
Palestinian witnesses said Israeli drones were seen hovering above just moments before al-Qaissi's vehicle burst into flames. They said the blast was so fierce that al-Qaissi's head detached as a result.
The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was plotting an infiltration attack into Israel similar to the one he orchestrated in August from the Sinai peninsula that killed eight Israelis and injured 40 more.
The armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committee is responsible for dozens of deadly attacks against Israelis in recent years and its members are among the most active rocket launchers from Gaza into Israel.
The Israeli military said al-Qaissi was also in charge of transferring funds from the Lebanese group Hezbollah to other armed groups in Gaza.
But the group is mostly known for carrying out the brazen 2006 abduction of Shalit and holding on to him for more than five years until he was freed in a massive prisoner swap last year.
Israel's agreement to release 1,027 Palestinians for Shalit was the most lopsided prisoner swap in the country's history. Hundreds of those released have vowed to resume violence against Israel.
Israel often targets Gaza fighters it says are preparing attacks, but tensions have been relatively calm in recent months with Israel mostly targeting smuggling tunnels from Egypt and refraining from targeting individuals.
Al-Qaissi, who is also known as Abu Ibrahim, is the highest profile casualty in Gaza since his predecessor, Kamal Nairab, was killed seven months ago in similar fashion.
The Israeli military insisted it did not want an escalation but said it was "prepared to defend the residents of Israel".
But it appeared to be getting ready for the worst, issuing a warning to Israeli residents living within rocket range from Gaza to stay close to home on Friday night and recommending that outdoor events be canceled on Saturday.
Mere hours later, Israel struck two more Gaza fighters preparing to fire rockets. Gaza Health Ministry official Adham Abu Salmiya confirmed that the two were killed east of Gaza City. The Islamic Jihad said the dead men were its members.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed Israel for sparking a new escalation. "The blood of our martyrs will not go in vain," he said.