Israel steps up use of `targeted killings'

Top Palestinian militant dies in gunship attack

April 11, 2003|By Laura King | Laura King,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - In the second such strike this week, Israeli helicopters fired a missile at a car carrying a top Palestinian militant leader in the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing him and injuring 12 bystanders.

The attack, in a rundown neighborhood in Gaza City that is known as a stronghold of several violent Islamic groups, took place only yards from where Israeli helicopter-fired missiles obliterated a vehicle carrying two Hamas leaders Tuesday, a strike that left five others dead.

The target of yesterday's missile strike was identified as Mahmoud Zatme, a senior commander of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. He was blamed by Israel for a string of attacks that killed dozens of Israelis.

Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge the death, which it called a heavy blow.

"We will fight with the last drop of blood in our bodies," said Mohammed Al Hindi, a spokesman for the group in Gaza.

Earlier in the day, undercover Israeli troops in the West Bank town of Tulkarm fired on a car carrying several members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

The driver was killed and four others were injured, and the army said three wanted Palestinian fugitives escaped.

Also yesterday, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility for an attack before dawn on an Israeli army base that left two Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian gunman dead.

This week's missile strikes in Gaza and the raid in Tulkarm marked an increase in what Israel calls "targeted killings" of Palestinian militant leaders, a practice condemned by Palestinians and international human rights groups.

Israel says it has the right to kill militants it knows to be responsible for Israeli deaths and plotting more; the Palestinians consider such killings to be assassinations.

Without referring directly to the latest Israeli actions, the European Union urged Israel to show "ultimate restraint" at what it described as a delicate time - while the Palestinian prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, is trying to assemble a Cabinet and international mediators are preparing to unveil a peace plan known as the "road map."

"In such a critical moment for the region ... we consider that extra-judicial executions, which also caused severe casualties among innocent civilians, are rather unwise and counterproductive," the European Union said in a statement.

Israel has demanded that Abbas, who is widely known as Abu Mazen, and his new administration must crack down on militant groups before peace negotiations can resume.

However, the Palestinians accuse Israel of trying to sabotage the peace plan, which was developed by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The proposal calls for the creation of a provisional Palestinian state.

Palestinian sources say that Abbas has been balking at pressure from Arafat to retain the leader's longtime aides in the new Cabinet, and that the disagreement has led to a delay in the announcing and swearing in of the new leadership. Abbas has been given another two weeks to form his Cabinet.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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