RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Israeli warplanes killed three top Hamas commanders in southern Gaza on Thursday, inflicting a heavy blow on the movement's armed wing after failing to kill its top military chief.
And a Hamas warning to foreign airlines to avoid flying into Israel's main airport, appeared to have fallen on deaf ears with air traffic operating as normal, aviation officials said.
As the six-week war between Israel and Hamas raged on, leaving Egyptian mediated truce talks in tatters, warplanes continued to pound Gaza killing three members of the Islamist movement's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
The Brigades said the three were "senior commanders," identifying them as Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Atar and Mohammed Barhum, vowing to make Israel pay.
"The assassination... is a big Israeli crime, which will not succeed in breaking our will or weakening our resistance," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement, warning: "Israel will pay the price."
Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency described Atar and Shamala as being among the top five most wanted Hamas militants.
The strike came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said militant leaders were legitimate targets, warning that no-one was "immune".
"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," he said.
In Rafah, there were scenes of devastation where the missile hit, blasting a four-storey building to smithereens, with nothing left except dust and rubble inside a huge crater.
Onlookers gathered at the site, gawping at the destruction as rescue workers picked through the rubble and an earth mover tried to clear away some of the heavier debris, an AFP correspondent said.
Air traffic unhindered
Also Thursday, an Israeli strike killed four Palestinians at a graveyard in Gaza City, with medics saying they were attending a funeral.
The raid hit a graveyard in Sheikh Radwan in the north of the city, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said, without giving further details.
The deadly strikes came 36 hours after Israel tried and failed to assassinate the Brigades' chief, Mohammed Deif, who has topped its most wanted list for over a decade.
That attack levelled a six-storey building in Gaza City, killing two women and two children, among them Deif's wife and his infant son.
But the militant group said Deif had escaped unharmed and would continue to call the shots in the ongoing confrontation with Israel.
It was the sixth time Israel had tried and failed to kill him.
It said there would be no further attempt to negotiate a ceasefire with Israel, warning foreign airlines not to fly into the Jewish state.
"We are calling on the Palestinian delegation to withdraw immediately from Cairo and not to return," spokesman Abu Obeida said in a televised speech aired on Hamas's Al-Aqsa TV.
"We are warning international airlines and press them to stop flying into Ben Gurion airport from 6 am (0300 GMT)," he said, his face wrapped in a red-and-white keffiyeh headscarf.
But the warning appeared to have gone unheeded with aviation officials saying air traffic was functioning normally, except for a brief pause for security reasons.
"There has been no change to take offs or landings," Ofer Lefler, spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) told AFP, adding that flights were "interrupted for 10 minutes for security reasons" without saying why.
The army also said there had been no rockets fired at the area.
Last month, major US and European airlines suspended flights over security concerns for two days after a rocket landed very close to one of the runways at Ben Gurion in a move hailed by Hamas as a "great victory."
Four children killed
The fighting over the last six weeks has been the most violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas militants since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, from 2000-2005.
The death toll in Gaza rose to 2,069 on Thursday after air strikes killed 19 people and another person died of wounds sustained earlier in the fighting.
Aside from the three Hamas commanders, and four children were among those killed on day 45 of the bloody conflict, medics said. Three of them died in a single strike on a group of people in the street in Gaza City.
The UN says around three-quarters of the victims in Gaza have been civilians.
On the Israeli side, 67 people have been killed, the vast majority of them soldiers.
One civilian was severely wounded when a mortar shell fired from Gaza struck an area not far from the border, the army said.
Since midnight, militants fired 18 rockets over the border, 17 of which struck Israeli territory and another which was shot down, the army said.
Despite the collapse of truce talks in Cairo, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to hold talks in Doha with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal later on Thursday.
Following the surge of violence which shattered a truce on Tuesday, the UN Security Council urged the warring sides to "urgently" return to the negotiating table as soon as possible to agree on a lasting truce in Gaza.
Although it fell short of a full resolution, diplomats signalled they would issue a stronger response if there was no movement on the Egyptian truce initiative. (AFP)