GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip Israel killed a top leader of an al-Qaida-inspired Gaza group in an airstrike, the military said Sunday, a significant blow in Israel's campaign against the shadowy fighters.
Hisham Saidani was killed with his bodyguard in an airstrike in the northern Gaza Strip late Saturday, Israel's military said. He was one of the top ideological guides for the violent, ultra-conservative Islamic movements in Gaza, known as Salafi jihadis.
The Israeli military said Saidani, 43, was suspected of carrying out attacks against Egyptian and Israeli targets but provided no further information.
Saidani led a small group, "Tawhid wal Jihad," or "Monotheism and Holy War," believed responsible for killing of an Israeli civilian working along the Egyptian border last June. He was also linked to the Mujahideen Shura Council, another militant group operating in Gaza and Egypt's neighboring Sinai desert.
Followers of Saidani were responsible for kidnapping and killing Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni in Gaza in March 2011. Saidani later denounced the act.
He sought to unite the many groups of ultraconservative Salafis in Gaza, according to jihadis commenting about his death. He was widely respected by fundamentalists in Gaza and through the region.
Over the past year, Israel has been targeting Salafis with airstrikes in Gaza, seeing them as a new threat to its southern border. Last Sunday, an Israeli strike killed another Salafi.
Salafis appear to be crossing between Gaza and Sinai, using the lawless Egyptian territory as a base to conduct attacks, or to flee after carrying out attacks elsewhere. Many adopt a Pakistani style of dress: long loose shirts over baggy pants, sandals and turbans.
They are considered a threat not only to Israel, but to Hamas and Egypt as well.
The Salafis consider Hamas, which itself is dedicated to Israel's destruction, to be too moderate because it seeks to establish a Palestinian state. Instead, they believe all Muslim lands should be united under the rule of fundamentalists, forcefully applying an extremely conservative version of Islam.
The violence continued early Sunday when Israeli aircraft hit Gaza militants planning a rocket attack. One militant belonging to a small faction was killed, said Palestinian health spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra.
During the latest round of violence, Palestinians fired more than 40 rockets at Israeli communities near Gaza, the military said. The salvos damaged property. No one was hurt.
Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for the barrages because it rules Gaza. The two have largely maintained an unwritten truce since a brief war nearly four years ago, but flare-ups occur occasionally.
In a separate development, the U.N.'s Middle East envoy harshly criticized attacks blamed on Israeli settlers against Palestinian farmers and their olive trees in the West Bank.
In a statement, Robert Serry said Israel must do more to protect Palestinians and their property in the West Bank. The West Bank, claimed by the Palestinians for a state, is under Israeli military rule.