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.
In recent years, a number of shadowy groups that claim inspiration from al-Qaida have been on the rise in Gaza. While they are not believed to have direct links with the global terror network, the groups share the same violent anti-Western ideology and frequently borrow from its tactics. They have also clashed with the ruling Islamic militant Hamas movement.
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.
In response to Saidani's death, al-Qaida's media arm warned Israel that its "joy will not last long."
"We fully trust our brothers that they will be capable of avenging the killing," said a statement by the Global Islamic Media Front, a European group that supports al-Qaida and other extremist organizations. The statement underscored Saidani's prominence among jihadis.
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.
Hamas arrested Saidani, also known as Sheik Abu Walid-al-Maqdasi, last year in the one of most high-profile arrests against the territory's Salafis. He was released two months ago.
Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the attack.
"The global jihad is stepping up its efforts to harm us, and we will continue to act against it aggressively and powerfully, both reactively and pre-emptively," Netanyahu said.
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.
"These acts are reprehensible, and I call on the government of Israel to bring those responsible to justice," Serry said.
An Israeli rights organization, B'Tselem, counts 450 Palestinian-owned trees either damaged or uprooted since the harvest season began on Oct. 10.
Every year a small number of extremist Jewish settlers carry out attacks during harvest season. Most attacks occur close to Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Olive groves provide crucial income for Palestinian farmers.
The Israeli military said security forces were taking "every measure to ensure the safety and security of the local residents."