Israel Kills 2 Palestinian Radical Leaders in Airstrike

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

JERUSALEM, Nov. 2 -- An Israeli airstrike Tuesday in the Gaza Strip killed two military leaders of radical Palestinian groups, including a senior member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades whose arrest Israel had demanded for months. The attack, which came hours after the Israeli cabinet approved an arrangement that would open Gaza's border with Egypt, brought pledges of swift revenge.

Before dawn Wednesday, an Israeli soldier was shot and killed during an arrest operation in the West Bank town of Marka southwest of Jenin, Israeli military officials said. The soldier was identified as Yonatan Evron, 20, from the Israeli city of Rishon Letzion.

The missile strike Tuesday in the Jabalya refugee camp targeted a car carrying Hassan Madoun, 32, of al-Aqsa, and Fawzi Abu Qara, 37, of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Hospital officials said six bystanders were wounded in the attack, which broadened an Israeli offensive against armed Palestinian groups. The offensive had focused initially on the relatively small Islamic Jihad faction.

"Our pursuit of terrorists does not distinguish by political affiliation," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Gissin said the men were "on their way to prepare a suicide bombing" when they were killed. "What we're facing today is a very broad front."

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is an armed wing of Fatah, the secular party that fills out the bureaucratic ranks of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli officials had asked Palestinian officials on several occasions to arrest Madoun, whom they described as a prolific recruiter of suicide bombers who have carried out at least three attacks, killing more than a dozen Israelis.

But Madoun was never detained. Israeli officials have held his case up as evidence that the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is not serious about cracking down on the armed groups as called for in the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map."

Israel suspended what it calls "targeted killings" as part of an informal truce struck in February, under which armed Palestinian groups pledged to stop offensive operations. But eight days of attacks and reprisals have left the cease-fire in tatters and dimmed hopes that Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years might lead to the resumption of a peace process.

"Our response will be what you see, not what you hear -- blood for blood," the military wing of Hamas said in a statement faxed to news organizations after the Jabalya airstrike. "The Israelis will come to know that our leaders' blood is not cheap."

Hamas identified Abu Qara as a senior military leader who specialized in building the Qassam rockets that the group fires from Gaza into southern Israel. Hamas, which is the leading Palestinian opposition political movement, rejects Israel's right to exist.

Earlier in the day, Israel's cabinet approved an agreement that would reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt to people, a step foreign diplomats have sought to ease the strip's isolation following Israel's withdrawal.

The arrangement calls for monitors from the European Union to supervise operations at the crossing. Cargo would pass through the Israeli-operated terminal at Kerem Shalom where the borders of Egypt, Gaza and Israel converge. But some issues remain unresolved. Palestinian officials want the right to export goods from Rafah, saying they are not subject to Israeli customs regulations. Israeli officials want to be able to monitor the Rafah crossing by remote camera, a demand Palestinians reject.

James D. Wolfensohn, a special envoy to the Middle East, last month criticized Israel's failure to ease restrictions along Gaza's borders in a report to senior diplomats. Acknowledging Israel's "very real" security concerns, Wolfensohn urged the government to move faster to open Rafah and improve passage at the two crossings between Gaza and Israel.

Wolfensohn has said improving Gaza's link to outside markets is essential to its economic development and stability. But little progress has been made on the issue, and Palestinian officials say the result is an increase in poverty and in the popularity of the armed groups at war with Israel.

"Israel is narrowing the security space of the Palestinian Authority," Ghassan Khatib, the authority's planning minister, said Tuesday in Ramallah, the main Palestinian city in the West Bank. "This is playing into the hands of the only alternative to the Palestinian Authority: the Palestinian opposition."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company