JERUSALEM - A day after a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell aimed at reviving a U.S.-backed peace plan, Israeli troops swooped in and killed a senior Hamas activist in the West Bank town of Hebron yesterday. Hamas immediately vowed it would seek revenge.
The slain man, Abdullah Kawasme, was described by Israel as the head of Hamas' military wing in Hebron. Israeli security officials said he had led a cell of activists believed responsible for several major suicide bombings, including an attack on a bus in Jerusalem on June 11 that killed 17 Israelis.
Yesterday's attack, and the Hamas pledges of reprisals, cast a new shadow on prospects for the peace plan known as the "road map," which was announced with much fanfare at a June 4 summit in Jordan attended by President Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Israeli security sources said the aim of yesterday's operation had been to arrest Kawasme. But the sources could not confirm whether there had been any exchange of fire when at least two carloads of Israeli special forces surrounded him near a mosque in the center of Hebron, or whether he was killed outright. Troops immediately cordoned off the area.
The attack shattered what had been an eight-day lull in an Israeli campaign against leaders and senior field operatives of Hamas. In the week after the summit in Jordan, Israel killed six Hamas activists in missile strikes in the Gaza Strip and wounded a senior leader, Abdelaziz Rantisi.
The killing of Kawasme occurred hours after Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, had insisted that Israel would continue to act strongly against Hamas unless Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas took swift steps to rein in militant groups.
"If we don't insist on this now, we won't be able to move ahead with the process," Shalom told Israel Radio. Up until now, he said, Israel had used "kid gloves" with Hamas.
Abbas has been conducting negotiations over the past two weeks with Hamas and other armed Palestinian factions to try to secure a cease-fire, but his efforts have been unsuccessful.
The Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, said after a Palestinian Cabinet meeting in Gaza yesterday that Hamas was expected to give its answer to the latest overtures soon. He said the militant groups "understand how dangerous the situation is."
Despite intense U.S. pressure to calm the situation, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has insisted that Israel would continue to pursue "ticking bombs" - a term that has generally been used to describe militants who are about to carry out an attack.
After initially questioning Sharon's judgment in launching a campaign against Hamas after the Jordan summit, the Bush administration closed ranks with Israel in describing Hamas as a lethal threat.
During his visit to Jerusalem on Friday, Powell described Hamas as "an enemy of peace" - whereupon Rantisi called Powell a "little slave" of Israel and the United States.
Bush administration officials said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice could be dispatched to the region this week to try to salvage the peace plan, which began unraveling within days of the summit at which Sharon and Abbas embraced it.
More than 60 people on the two sides have died in ambushes, shootings, bombings and missile strikes since then, including an American citizen, Zvi Goldstein, who was killed in a shooting attack Friday. Goldstein and his family were driving from the West Bank settlement where he lived to Jerusalem for a wedding .
Goldstein's elderly parents, from Plainview, N.Y., were seriously wounded.
Hamas claimed responsibility.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.