The strike comes as Hamas militants threatened more attacks and the Israeli military continued its campaign against radical Palestinian leaders.
The Israeli helicopters apparently targeted Thursday’s attack on a neighborhood believed to be a Hamas stronghold, killing the Hamas militant and at least six other Palestinians, including a three-year-old girl, according to media reports.
Witnesses to Thursday’s strike told news agencies that three helicopter gunships fired six missiles into the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, destroying a car carrying the Hamas official and his family.
A last missile exploded as bystanders rushed to the scene, injuring at least 29 people according to media reports.
The Israeli move comes after a bloody day Wednesday in which a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 16 and wounded scores aboard a Jerusalem bus and Israeli missile strikes killed 11 in Gaza.
Hamas, which claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s suicide bombing, vowed Thursday to continue carrying out attacks inside Israel and warned all foreigners to leave the state for their own safety.
“The Jerusalem attack is the beginning of a new series of revenge attacks… in which we will target every Zionist occupying our land,” Hamas said in a statement faxed to Reuters. “We call on international citizens to leave the Zionist entity immediately to preserve their lives.”
“We call upon all cells to work fast on an earthquake-like response,” the Hamas statement said.
Thursday’s strike came soon after Israeli radio said the army had been ordered to “completely wipe out” Hamas according to a BBC report.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon increased his rhetoric Thursday against Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas who has said he cannot use force against militia groups and risk sparking civil war.
In an emergency Cabinet meeting Thursday, Sharon dismissed Palestinian leaders as “crybabies who let terror run rampant,” an Israeli Cabinet source said, according to Reuters.
Sharon reportedly described Abbas as a “chick that hasn’t grown its feathers yet” for his inability to persuade groups like Hamas to halt their attacks.
“We have to help him fight terror until his feathers grow,” the source quoted Sharon as saying.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed to keep support alive for the “road map” to Middle East peace recently endorsed by both Sharon and Abbas.
Powell said he called Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan al-Muasher on Thursday to encourage ongoing support for the internationally backed peace plan, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
“[The message was] that we have to keep moving forward, that it would be a disaster if we lost this opportunity,” Powell said after a speech at the State Department, as news broke of the latest Israeli missile strike.
“We are encouraging the Palestinian leadership, we are encouraging the Israeli leadership to act with determination, to punch through this wave of violence, to make sure that it does not stop us,” he said during the speech.
“It is incumbent on every nation around the world to speak out and put the hammer down on Hamas, the PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], and stop funding them, stop allowing any resources to go to them,” Powell told reporters according to Reuters.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw echoed Powell’s call to increase international efforts to crack down on funding for militant groups in light of the recent bloodshed.
“One of the things that has to come out of this appalling outrage is a greater determination by the international community to clamp down on funding and support for terrorist organizations like Hamas,” Straw told BBC radio.
“We have got to look at exactly what sanctions can be brought to bear — and to do so with our European colleagues,” Straw said.