Hamas officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, and Jabari, contrary to form, was driving in broad daylight when his vehicle was hit.
The Hamas military chief had long topped Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for masterminding a string of deadly attacks that including a bold, cross-border kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006. He also was believed to be a key player in Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 from a rival Palestinian faction, the Western-backed Fatah movement.
The Israeli military released a black-and-white video of the airstrike, showing a sedan moving slowly along a road before going up in flames in an explosion so powerful that a large chunk of the vehicle flew high into the air.
Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell. Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City’s skies following other airstrikes. Ambulance sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and militants fired angrily into the air.
Outside the hospital where Jabari’s body was taken, thousands of Gazans chanted ‘‘Retaliation!’’ and ‘‘We want you to hit Tel Aviv tonight!’’
‘‘I was sitting on my bed with my grandson when suddenly the wall collapsed on both of our heads,’’ said Mahmoud Bana, a 62-year-old man who was slightly wounded along with his 11-year-old grandson. ‘‘We don’t know what happened but we know it is going to be a few hard days ahead.’’
In a statement, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eulogized Jabari and vowed revenge.
‘‘We mourn our late leader who walked the path of jihad while he knew the end, either victory or martyrdom,’’ Haniyeh said. ‘‘There is no fear among our people and our resistance, and we will face this vicious attack.’’
Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.
Critics say the killings invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.
During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.
The Israeli military also released footage of its strikes against weapons depots and rocket-launching grounds. Hamas denied that any of its weapons stores were hit.
Hamas accused Netanyahu of launching Wednesday’s operation to win votes in the Jan. 22 parliamentary election. But major Israeli parties, including the dovish opposition, all lined up behind Netanyahu.
Still, the region has changed greatly over the past four years. Most critically for Israel, Egypt is now governed by Hamas’ ideological counterpart, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979. Relations, never warm, have deteriorated since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year. The assassination threatened to further damage those fraying ties.
On its official Facebook page, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, called Jabari’s assassination a ‘‘crime that requires a quick Arab and international response to stem these massacres against the besieged Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.’’
It accused Israel of trying to ‘‘drag the region toward instability.’’
In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel. ‘‘We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,’’ said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
President Barack Obama spoke with Netanyahu and the two men agreed Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow tensions to ease, the White House said.
Obama spoke separately to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, given Egypt’s central role in preserving regional security, the White House said. The two men agreed on the need to de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law.
On Wednesday night, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel’s military action in Gaza. The Palestinians asked the council to act to stop the operation.
Teibel reported from Jerusalem. Additional reporting from Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Bradley Klapper in Washington.