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By Laura King, Los Angeles Times

TEL AVIV, Israel — The militant group Hamas said three of its senior military leaders were killed early Thursday in an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip that also killed at least seven other people.

The Israeli military confirmed carrying out the attack in response to continuing rocket fire from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

The latest strikes appeared to mark a tactical shift on the part of Israel, which until this week had largely refrained from targeting specific Hamas leaders. On Tuesday, Israeli forces made an apparent attempt to assassinate Hamas’ top military commander, killing his wife and infant son in an airstrike. Hamas said the commander, Mohammed Deif, was not present at the time.

Thursday marked a third day of renewed hostilities in Gaza after two weeks of relative calm, during which the two sides had for the most part observed a series of temporary cease-fires while holding indirect talks in Cairo. The negotiations collapsed along with the calm; there was no word on when or whether those talks would resume.

Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, said in a brief announcement that the three men killed in the southern town of Rafah were Mohammad Abu Shamaleh, Raed Attar, and Mohammad Barhoum. Witnesses said Israeli warplanes fired a volley of missiles at a five-story building in the Tel Sultan neighborhood, leveling it.

Rafah was the scene of heavy fighting earlier in the Israeli offensive.

The three Hamas men killed were known to be senior members of the Qassam command structure. Attar was the local commander in Rafah, and was believed to have overseen the building of a network of tunnels in the area, and the smuggling of weapons from Egypt. Abu Shamaleh was a commander in southern Gaza, and Israel says he and Attar masterminded the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held prisoner in Gaza for five years before being freed in a large-scale prisoner exchange.

Attar was years ago sentenced to death by the Palestinian Authority for killing a police officer, but that sentence was commuted by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The death toll in Gaza since fighting broke out on July 8 is now above 2,000. Sixty-seven people have died on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.

Los Angeles Times special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

AFP Photo/Thomas Coex

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