RAFAH - Israeli warplanes assassinated three top Hamas commanders in southern Gaza on Thursday, inflicting a heavy blow on the movement’s armed wing after failing to kill its top military chief.

As the six-week war between Israel and Hamas raged on leaving truce talks in tatters, a pre-dawn air strike killed three members of the Islamist movement’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. The Brigades said they were ‘senior commanders’, identifying them as Mohammed Abu Shamala, Raed al-Atar and Mohammed Barhum, and vowed to make Israel pay.

‘The assassination... is a big Israeli crime, which will not succeed in breaking our will or weakening our resistance,’ spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency said Atar and Shamala were among the top five most-wanted Hamas militants. Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon hailed their deaths as ‘a big operational and intelligence achievement’, and warned that Israel would not hesitate to track down the rest of the group’s leaders.

‘Hamas leaders should know that we will neither rest nor be silent until we get our hands on them,’ he said in a statement. A series of missiles blasted the four-storey building in Rafah to smithereens and left a huge crater. Rescue workers picked through the rubble and an earth mover tried to clear some of the heavier debris, an AFP correspondent said.

Four surrounding buildings were damaged in the strike, with their doors and windows blown out and some outer walls destroyed. Witnesses said nine missiles were fired at the building.

The deadly strikes came 36 hours after Israel tried and failed to assassinate Brigades chief Mohammed Deif, who has topped its most wanted list for more than a decade.  That attack levelled a six-storey building in Gaza City, killing two women and two children, among them Deif’s wife and his infant son, although he escaped unharmed, Hamas said. Rescue workers on Thursday also pulled the body of Deif’s three-year-old daughter Sara from the ruins, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

Separately, another 26 people were killed in Israeli strikes across Gaza Thursday on day 45 of the bloody conflict, raising the overall death toll to 2,077 killed in Gaza. UN statistics indicate that around three-quarters of them were civilians. On the Israeli side, 67 people have been killed, the vast majority of them soldiers. One civilian was severely wounded when a mortar round hit an area not far from the Gaza border on Thursday, the army said. In the 48 hours since the truce broke down, Gaza militants have launched 283 rockets, 219 of which struck Israel and another 44 which were shot down, the army said.

Despite the collapse of the negotiations, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Qatar with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, official Palestinian and Gulf news agencies said. The talks in Doha, where Meshaal is based, were hosted by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of Hamas, the Gulf state’s QNA news agency reported. A Palestinian delegate told AFP the talks between the three leaders lasted nearly three hours and were expected to be followed by a two-way meeting between Abbas and Meshaal.

Also present was Azzam al-Ahmed, who led the Palestinian delegation at truce talks in Cairo, senior negotiator Saeb Erakat and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj. Abbas then met Meshaal and his exiled deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, who also attended the Cairo talks, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said, without elaborating. Late on Wednesday, Hamas’s armed wing said there be would no further negotiations with Israel, and warned foreign airlines ‘to stop flying into Ben Gurion airport from 6 am (0300 GMT)’.

Egypt’s Air Sinai said it was cancelling its Thursday and Friday flights ‘due to the deteriorating security situation’. Otherwise, air traffic was functioning normally, except for a brief interruption ‘for security reasons’, Israel Airports Authority (IAA) spokesman Ofer Lefler told AFP. The army said there had been no rockets fired at the area. Last month, major US and European airlines suspended flights for two days after a rocket hit very close to a runway at Ben Gurion in a move hailed by Hamas as a ‘great victory’.

Meanwhile, British aid charity Oxfam called on the international community to ‘immediately suspend transfers of arms or ammunition while there is serious risk that they could be used to violate international humanitarian law’. It said the widespread killing of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure during the six-week Israeli operation was the worst it had witnessed in 20 years of working in Gaza.