Airstrike missed target, Israel says

Top Hamas bomb maker escapes deadly attack


JERUSALEM - Israeli officials acknowledged yesterday that a helicopter strike in Gaza City on Thursday had failed to kill its target, a bomb maker for the militant group Hamas who has been on Israel's wanted list for a decade.

The escape of Muhammad Deif was a blow to Israel as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict approached its two-year anniversary this weekend, with Israeli cities under security alert, most of the West Bank under Israeli military control, and no halt to the violence in sight.

Two other members of Hamas were killed in the strike, and more than 30 people, including 15 children, were injured. Deif was injured but not mortally, Palestinian and Israeli officials said. Deif, a shadowy figure who eluded a similar attack a year ago, vanished again.

Chanting for vengeance, thousands of Palestinians rallied yesterday in Gaza at Khan Yunis, the home of Deif and the two men who were killed. Hamas leaders said the group would retaliate for the missile strike.

Matan Vilnai, a member of Israel's security Cabinet, said Deif had survived.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remained under Israeli siege yesterday in Ramallah. The two sides did not negotiate, but there were hints that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was seeking a way out of the stalemate.

The United Nations Security Council has demanded that Israel release its grip on Arafat, and President Bush has said that the Israeli action is hindering democratic change for the Palestinians.

The Israeli government has demanded that 19 men it says are confined with Arafat be handed over. Israeli news reports indicated yesterday that the government might be satisfied with the transfer of the men to a Palestinian prison, an alternative Israeli officials had previously rejected.

Palestinian officials say they will agree to nothing less than an Israeli withdrawal. But Sharon, who has described the wanted men in the compound as "the biggest terrorists that exist," might find it politically difficult to back down. Israel has not supplied a list of the wanted men.

"It's a complete standoff," said a Western diplomat here. "Arafat refuses to speak to the Israelis. It's now pretty apparent that both sides want to get out, but Arafat has the upper hand. Arafat may be under military siege, but Israel is under political siege."

Israeli forces demolished most of what remained of the compound and confined Arafat to one building after a Hamas suicide bomber killed six people in Tel Aviv on Sept. 19.

Vilnai said Israel could have killed Deif had it used more powerful weapons, but he said it did not because of the risk to civilians. In the attack, on a busy Gaza City street, Israeli helicopters fired two missiles at a green Mercedes in which Deif was believed to be traveling.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the attack and called on Israel to "conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law, under which Israel has a clear responsibility to protect the lives of civilians."

In the West Bank, in Hebron, another Hamas militant was killed yesterday when he fired on Israeli forces who were trying to arrest him, the army said.

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