Israel kills 3 members of Hamas

Second airstrike signals new targeting of militants

March 04, 2004|By Laura King | Laura King,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Israeli missiles slammed into a car carrying members of the militant group Hamas along a dirt road in the central Gaza Strip yesterday, incinerating the three men inside, causing farmers in nearby fields to dive for cover and sending black smoke billowing into a cloudless sky.

It was the second deadly airstrike in five days against Palestinian militants in Gaza, signaling a clear revival of Israel's tactic of so-called targeted killings of Palestinian militant figures. Three members of Islamic Jihad were killed in a similar raid in a Gaza refugee camp Saturday.

The Israeli government defends such killings as a deterrent against suicide bombings and other attacks. But international and Israeli human rights groups say the tactic amounts to execution without trial.

Under U.S. pressure, Israel for several months had quietly halted targeting of militant leaders, but in recent weeks Israeli officials declared their intention to resume the campaign.

Palestinian officials condemned yesterday's airstrike. "The Israeli government's aim is to kill any attempt to restore quiet and revive the peace process," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told Reuters.

Israel contends that Qureia has failed to crack down on militants, as mandated by the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

In the aftermath of the missile strike, bystanders rushed to the burning car, trying to douse the flames by flinging handfuls of sand at it. Medics pulled the three charred bodies -- one of them decapitated, according to witnesses -- from the wreckage.

The Israeli army confirmed that it had carried out the airstrike, describing those targeted as senior Hamas operatives who were "involved in numerous terrorist attacks ... and planning additional attacks."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, fended off criticism yesterday after a newspaper reported that he had close and previously undisclosed ties to the family of Elhanan Tannenbaum, an Israeli businessman and colonel in the military reserves who was freed in a prisoner swap with the militant group Hezbollah.

Tannenbaum, who has been in the custody of Israeli authorities since being handed over Jan. 29 in exchange for more than 400 Arab prisoners, is suspected of having been engaged in a drug deal with a Hezbollah-linked associate at the time of his abduction.

The Maariv newspaper reported yesterday that Sharon had a business relationship dating back to the 1970s with Shimon Cohen, Tannenbaum's father-in-law. That sparked angry accusations that Sharon had concealed his personal motivation for striking a lopsided deal with Hezbollah.

The prime minister, addressing lawmakers, dismissed the Maariv report as a "wild attack." He said he had not been in touch with Cohen for many years and was not aware that he was related to Tannenbaum.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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