Israeli air strike targets Hamas leader, who survives with minor injuries

Israeli air strike targets Hamas leader, who survives with minor injuries

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Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli warplanes flattened the home of senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar with a half-ton bomb Wednesday, wounding him and killing his eldest son and a bodyguard, in retaliation for twin suicide bombings that killed 15 Israelis a day earlier.

The strike marked the first time a Hamas leader was attacked in his home, an escalation of Israel's campaign against the Islamic militant group. Several Hamas leaders went underground, and Hamas threatened to widen its bombing spree by bringing down Israeli high-rises and homes.

Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bombings in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.

"These two operations came as the beginning of our retaliation for the enemy's crimes against our people," the statement said.

In the West Bank, Palestinian parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia accepted the job of prime minister after several days of wavering, his decision apparently rushed by fears that a continued power vacuum will tempt Israel to intensify military strikes. Qureia said he would form a crisis Cabinet of no more than eight ministers and seek parliament's approval Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short a visit to India, and was to hold security consultations upon landing early Thursday. Two strategic decisions — whether to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or order a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip — are on the agenda, a security official said on condition of anonymity.

Tuesday's suicide bombings — reprisals for Israel's failed attempt over the weekend to kill most of the Hamas leadership in an airstrike — occurred five hours apart. The first killed eight soldiers at a crowded bus stop near Tel Aviv, and the second killed seven patrons at a popular Jerusalem coffee house. Dozens of bystanders were wounded.

The Israeli military said after the bombings it will press ahead with its "all-out war" on Hamas since the group claimed a suicide bombing last month that killed 22 people on a Jerusalem bus. In the three weeks leading up to Wednesday's strike, Israel had killed 12 Hamas members and five bystanders in targeted attacks.

In the statement faxed to the AP, Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, identified Tuesday's bombers as members Ramez Abu Isleem, 24, and Ihab Abdel Kader Abu Isleem, 20.

In the West Bank village of Rantisi, 20 relatives of two local Hamas activists were arrested earlier by Israeli troops.

Later Wednesday, troops arrested Raed Barghouti, a Hamas operative, in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Palestinian security officials said Barghouti apparently had a role in the bombings. Israeli troops also entered the West Bank town of Qalqiliya and imposed a curfew.

About 12 hours after the attack on the Jerusalem coffee house, Israeli warplanes bombed the home of Zahar, a senior official in Hamas, flattening the two-story structure with what Israeli security officials said was a half-ton bomb. Zahar, 58, was standing in the doorway at the time, said his brother, Yousef.

"He (Zahar) had his hand behind his head and his hand was covered with blood," ambulance driver Rami Salameh said. "When I moved him to the stretcher with the help of other people, he screamed from pain in his back, but he was talking to us, saying, ‘I'm OK, I'm OK.' "

Zahar went into hiding after being treated at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital.

In a telephone interview with the Arab satellite TV station Al- Jazeera later Wednesday, he said Hamas would not be cowed.

"This course will not stop if we become martyrs … Tens and hundreds have been martyred before us and the banner of jihad and martyrdom has remained," he said.

Zahar's bodyguard and a son, 29-year-old Khaled, were killed. The blast hurled the bodyguard's body onto the roof of a nearby mosque, witnesses said. Officials said 25 people, including Zahar's wife and a daughter, were wounded. In all, three women and five children were hurt.

The Hamas military wing said there would be more bombings in retaliation for the attack on Zahar.

"Targeting homes is violating all red lines," another statement from the military wing said. "From today, the Zionist enemy shoulders the responsibility for the targeting of houses and Zionist towers everywhere in occupied Palestine (by us)."

The Israeli military said it targeted Zahar as a senior decision-maker in Hamas and one of those who directs suicide attacks.

"The leadership (in Gaza) is in close touch with Hamas command posts throughout the world, and especially the Hamas command center in Syria," the military said.

The violence underscored the collapse of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan and came amid political uncertainty after the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Qureia, a moderate with close ties to Arafat, said he would make security his top priority and would unify eight security branches under one command, but stopped short of saying he would clamp down on Palestinian militants as demanded by Israel and the United States.

To oversee the forces, he said he would appoint an interior minister, a minister for security affairs and a deputy prime minister for security affairs.

Control over security forces would be essential for the Palestinians to confront militant groups, as required by the road map. The Palestinians have been reluctant to do so for fear of sparking a civil war.

Israeli officials have said they are concerned about Qureia's close relations with Arafat, who they say impeded Abbas' efforts to halt violence and implement the peace plan, which envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israel government spokesman Zalman Shoval said Israel's attitude to Qureia would be determined by his actions.

"Our attitude to Qureia will not be in accordance with what he says, but rather if in fact he implements what the road map, the U.S. and we expect from him," Shoval said.

Tuesday's first bombing occurred about 6 p.m., as soldiers were waiting for rides home outside the Tsrifin army base near the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion.

More than five hours later, about 11:20 p.m., another suicide bomber entered the Hillel Cafe, a popular bistro in the posh German colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. Many Jerusalem residents have been staying away from the often-targeted downtown area, but have considered such neighborhoods relatively safe.

Police said the bomber managed to get into the cafe despite two security guards — one inside the front door and one outside. Police said one of the guards saw the bomber and tried to stop him. One security guard and another six cafe patrons were killed, including Dr. David Applebaum, a U.S.-born surgeon and his daughter, who was to be married Wednesday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the bombings "vicious attacks" and condemned them in the "strongest possible terms."

McClellan said President Bush remained committed to the peace plan, but he said the bombings "underscore the need to fight terrorism and the need to dismantle terrorist organizations and groups like Hamas."

In Switzerland, the International Red Cross said the Israeli and Palestinian attacks that have killed and injured civilians in recent weeks were violations of the Geneva Conventions on warfare and "must therefore stop."

Copyright © 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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