Israeli troops kill leader in Islamic Jihad


JERUSALEM - Israeli troops swooped down on a West Bank hide-out early yesterday and shot to death a senior commander of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and one of his top aides, according to military spokesmen and Palestinian officials.

The killing of Luai Saadi, a fugitive blamed by Israeli authorities for orchestrating attacks that killed 12 Israelis this year, drew threats of vengeance from Islamic Jihad.

As Israel ushered in the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, the Israeli military stepped up its state of readiness and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that any strike by Islamic Jihad would be met with a harsh response.

In the hours after yesterday's raid, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a volley of rockets aimed at Israeli towns, but they fell harmlessly.

Also slain in the predawn Israeli attack in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm was Majid Ashkar, identified by the Israeli military as one of Saadi's closest lieutenants in Islamic Jihad. But illustrating the fluidity of ties among Palestinian militant groups, another group, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, claimed Ashkar was one of its own.

The deaths were the latest episode in what has been a slow erosion of the optimistic mood that prevailed after the completion of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last month.

While there has been no large outbreak of violence, recent weeks have seen a steadily growing casualty count, mostly from small-scale attacks reminiscent of the early days of the Palestinian uprising.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was on a visit to Egypt and Jordan, issued a statement describing the two men's deaths as "assassinations." The Israeli incursion into Tulkarm, which is supposed to be under the control of Palestinian security forces, threatened to "undermine ... efforts to bring about calm and security," the statement said.

Israel said the raid in Tulkarm, which is considered a stronghold of Islamic Jihad, was planned as an arrest operation, and was not a "targeted killing." The army said Saadi was shot after he fired on troops who had surrounded the hide-out.

Ashkar was fatally shot as he tried to flee in a car, and a second man in the vehicle with him was arrested, the army said.

The 26-year-old Saadi, from the village of Atil outside Tulkarm, was described by the Israeli military as a "major threat" who was involved in "widespread terror activities." The army asserted that he was the leader of a local Islamic Jihad cell that, among other attacks, planned and carried out a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv nightclub in February that killed five Israelis and another bombing outside a mall in the coastal city of Netanya in July that also killed five Israelis.

The cell had intended to attempt another suicide bombing inside Israel within days, Israeli authorities said, citing intelligence reports. The commander who led the raid, Col. Aharon Haliva, told Israel radio that "there's no doubt the lives of many Israelis were saved as a result of this action."

Of the major Palestinian militant groups, Islamic Jihad has taken the most aggressive stance in the wake of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death nearly a year ago. The other main militant organizations, Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, have largely adhered to a unilateral cease-fire declared in February, despite occasional flare-ups.

Laura King writes for The Los Angeles Times

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