GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - An Israeli missile strike in the Gaza Strip killed a top Hamas political and military leader yesterday, along with several relatives, as the militant group continued to launch its rockets deep into Israeli territory.
The continued clash came amid rising global calls for an end to the bloodshed, which has killed at least 418 Palestinians and four Israelis.
The attack on Nizar Rayan, confirmed by Israeli officials, family members and Hamas, might signal a shift in Israeli tactics as the assault on the Gaza Strip entered its sixth day. After nearly a week of pounding police stations, security compounds, rocket-launching cells and cross-border tunnels, the Jewish state might be reviving its former practice of assassination strikes on Hamas leaders.
Rayan, 49, is the most senior Hamas official killed since the movement's co-founders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdulaziz Rantisi died in Israeli airstrikes less than a month apart in 2004, said a senior Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
An Islamic scholar and a university instructor, Rayan was a force in both the political and military wings of Hamas, which controls Gaza. Even as most senior Hamas leaders went into hiding when the Israeli air barrages began, Rayan made a point of living openly in a home in the Jabaliya refugee camp. He encouraged other leaders to follow suit.
"This is a difficult hit for Hamas. Even they admit it," said Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman. Leibovich declined to comment on whether the strike on Rayan represented a formal return to the assassination policy.
The battle-hardened militant group has proved adept at replacing slain leaders, calling into question the effectiveness of the tactic. After the killings of Yassin and Rantisi, Hamas regrouped stronger than ever around a new command structure based in Gaza and Damascus, Syria.
In January 2006, it won Palestinian parliamentary elections over its bitter rival, the U.S.-backed Fatah faction. When a brief Fatah-Hamas unity government collapsed in 2007, Hamas fighters routed better-equipped Fatah forces in four days.
Despite Hamas' demonstrated adaptability, Rayan's death is a clear loss on multiple levels. He was uniquely popular and respected among the military wing; unlike most of the movement's civilian leaders, Rayan fought alongside his troops in battles with Israeli soldiers and tanks.
Thirteen other members of Rayan's family, including his four wives, died in the strike, Rayan's teenage son Baraa told the Los Angeles Times. Two more children are missing and presumed buried in the rubble.
"We are patient, and we are committed to the resistance," said Baraa Rayan.
Tanks and thousands of Israeli soldiers remained massed on the Gaza border yesterday, awaiting an order to invade the densely packed and fortified coastal territory.
In the face of mounting international calls for an end to the campaign, Israeli officials defended the operation as necessary to ensure an end to the daily rocket launches from Gaza that threaten a widening portion of southern Israel.
"Hamas understands that Israel has changed the equation," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said before leaving for Paris. "The situation in which they shoot and we do not respond is over."
Livni's French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, has urged a 48-hour halt in the fighting to allow delivery of humanitarian relief and to give time for international mediators to work out a long-term truce.
Livni and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have dismissed the proposal as premature and said the offensive would continue until its goals were met. "We did not go into the Gaza operation only to end it while rocket fire continues," Olmert told a special session of his Cabinet on Wednesday.
Livni reiterated that a pause in Israel's assault would depend on Hamas suspending rocket attacks on southern Israel.
"We affected most of the infrastructure of terrorism in the Gaza Strip, and the question [of] whether it's enough or not will be according to our assessment on a daily basis," Livni said after meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Kouchner.
Sarkozy, who made no statement after meeting with Livni, has been vocal in the diplomatic push for peace in Gaza and is set to travel to the Middle East next week.
Livni gave no details of her hourlong meeting with Sarkozy but thanked him for "standing for the right thing."
With Palestinian anger running high over the mounting casualties, Israeli officials were bracing for unrest today. The government announced a closure of border crossings in the West Bank starting last night and extending through tomorrow night. For Friday prayers at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque, no Arab men under 50 were to be allowed on the Temple Mount.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.