Hamas accuses Israel after militant leader dies in Damascus explosion

September 27, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Members of the militant group Hamas blamed Israel yesterday for a car bomb that killed a Hamas leader in Damascus, Syria.

Israeli officials declined to confirm or deny involvement in the death of Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil, 42, a leader of Hamas' Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. His death came about a month after Hamas claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing that killed 16 Israelis in Beersheba.

The Associated Press said Israeli security sources acknowledged killing Khalil, but officials here did not confirm it.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "The details of this incident are not known to us. All we know is what we heard on the radio and in the media."

`No sanctuary'

Gissin reiterated comments made last month by Israel's defense minister, saying: "There will be no immunity and no sanctuary in Damascus for terrorists."

Israel's army has acknowledged assassinating dozens of activists from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other hard-line groups over the past four years. But officials generally refrain from comment when clandestine methods are used, such as bombs hidden in cars or telephones, or when agents operate abroad.

A senior government aide said of Khalil: "Someone engaged in such risky and dangerous business and who lives in such a rough neighborhood has to take his chances and expect that things like this may happen."

Ahmad Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister, called yesterday's killing a "terrorist and cowardly action."

"This is not the first warning Israel has tried to convey to Syria," he said. "What happened indicates that Israel's aggression has no limits."

Ali said it "was meant to deliver a message to the entire world that says, `We are capable of striking anywhere in accordance with the Israeli agenda.'"

Hamas leaders in Gaza, where Khalil's family lives, blamed Israel shortly after the 11 a.m. explosion in the Syrian capital, calling it a "cowardly crime."

A Hamas statement issued in Damascus said, "These crimes that unify the Palestinian blood inside and outside Palestine will not terrorize us or stop us from pursuing the path of jihad and resistance." The group vowed to retaliate.

Last October, after a Palestinian suicide attack in Haifa killed 19 people, Israeli aircraft bombed an Islamic Jihad base in Syria, the first such attack there in two decades. Syria did not respond.

Little is known about Khalil, who was born in eastern Gaza City. Israel deported him to southern Lebanon in 1992. The Hamas Web site says he reached Syria after killing several Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.

According to Israel's state radio, Khalil helped train Yehiya Ayash, a top Hamas bomb-maker killed in 1996. Khalil's family told reporters in Gaza yesterday that they had had no contact with him for years because of the secretive life he led.

The Hamas Web site accused Arab intelligence agencies of helping Israel track down its leaders, a reference to a report this month in the London newspaper al-Hayat that Arab countries had provided the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, with detailed information about the Hamas leader in Syria, Khaled Mashal, including his home address and type of food he ate.

Syrian officials said last week that they have closed Hamas offices in Damascus and cut the group's phone lines. Mashal has surfaced in Cairo, Egypt, where he made a public appearance at a seminar.

Israel has repeatedly targeted militants abroad, including tracking down those responsible for the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and reported assassinations in Lebanon, Malta and Tunisia, most notably of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's top deputy, Abu Jihad.

There also have been embarrassing mistakes. In 1973, a Moroccan waiter in Norway was fatally shot after being mistaken for Arafat's bodyguard. In 1997, two Mossad agents were arrested in Jordan for trying to poison Mashal. Israel supplied an antidote and freed Hamas prisoners, including Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, to gain the agents' release. Israel killed Yassin in a missile strike in March.

Yesterday's explosion in Syria came during another day of violence in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants fired mortar shells at Jewish settlements there; no casualties were reported.

Carrot and stick

Israeli officials said Sharon's plan for a unilateral disengagement from all 21 settlements in Gaza has not changed. Yonatan Bassi, who heads the government office charged with implementing the plan, said yesterday that legislation authorizing the withdrawal will be submitted to parliament Nov. 3.

The legislation would provide compensation for settlers of $200,000 to $300,000 per family; advance payments could begin within six weeks, ahead of the vote. The bill calls for prison terms of up to three years for those who refuse army orders or cause a disturbance and up to five years if armed.

Bassi, with a bodyguard standing two feet behind him, told reporters that about half the 1,500 families in Gaza and four West Bank settlements also to be dismantled by next fall refuse to talk to his agency.

Asked about the potential for civil unrest, Bassi said: "It depends on all of us. The flames that are now are significant. They certainly don't bode well."

Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for Gush Katif, accused Sharon of minimizing the military response to Palestinian attacks, to pressure settlers to leave.

"What the advance payments will not do, maybe the mortars will do," he said. "The prime minister causes incitement to murder against the residents of Gush Katif."

Sharon, at his weekly Cabinet meeting, criticized Sternberg, saying, "The argument that we are not waging operations against terror in order to increase the burden on the settlers is sick thinking that only sick minds can think of."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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