Vol. 4 Num 293 Wed. March 24, 2004  
Front Page

Israel targets entire Hamas leadership
Army chief hints Arafat next on hit list

Israel will try to kill the entire leadership of Hamas without waiting for another attack by the militant group, security sources said yesterday, citing a decision made by Israeli security chiefs following the assassination of Hamas' founder.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top aides approved an order to target all senior militants after the wheelchair-bound cleric, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed in an Israeli missile strike outside a Gaza mosque Monday, security sources said.

"Anyone who is involved in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or anywhere else in leading a terror group knows from yesterday there is no immunity," Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi told reporters. "Everyone is in our sights." "There is no immunity to anyone. And that means anyone to the last person," he said.

The killing of Yassin threatened to escalate three and a half years of Israel-Palestinian fighting.

Fearing attacks that Hamas has pledged to avenge Yassin, Israeli forces went on high alert. Previous assassinations triggered waves of suicide bombings on buses and cafes that killed scores of Israelis.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank rocket at an Israeli army position near a Jewish settlement, triggering a gun battle with Israeli forces, witnesses said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Israel's army chief hinted that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Lebanese Hizbollah guerrilla leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah could end up on the hit list, though security sources said there was no immediate plan to kill either.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians thronged the streets of Gaza City for Yassin's funeral procession Monday, and Hamas threatened punishing revenge attacks against Israel. It also hinted for the first time that the United States could become a target for backing Israel.

Hamas, founded by Yassin in 1987, wants to destroy Israel and replace it with an Islamic state. Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Monday that Hamas killed 377 Israelis and wounded more than 2,000 in hundreds of attacks.

Despite the outpouring of rage, Israeli security chiefs decided during a five-hour meeting Monday to step up targeted attacks, the security sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A decision in principle on targeting top Hamas officials was first made last week by Israel's Cabinet, in response to a double suicide bombing on an Israeli seaport. In Monday night's session, the security chiefs reaffirmed the direction.

"We have switched from defence to offence and in this battle all the members of the Hamas leadership are legitimate targets," Hanegbi told public radio.

"The days of the terrorist chiefs and commanders who will not spend all their time trying to survive and still prepare attacks are numbered," he said.

Late Monday, Hamas' leaders appeared in public at a mass mourning ceremony at Gaza's Yarmouk stadium, apparently believing that they were safe in such a public setting. Hamas leaders often hide underground when tensions are high with Israel.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia headed to Gaza on Tuesday to pay his condolences to Hamas. He was to attend a ceremony at the stadium later in the day.

The Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning and stores throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip were closed Tuesday. Hamas is the biggest rival to the authority, but Palestinian leaders treat the movement with respect because of its popularity.

Security chiefs are closely watching to see who fills the political vacuum caused by Yassin's death. At least initially, hardliner Abdel Aziz Rantisi, has emerged as a Hamas strongman. Rantisi, a 54-year-old pediatrician who escaped an Israeli assassination attempt last June, opposes even a temporary truce with Israel.

A statement purporting to come from an al-Qaeda linked group and published on an Islamist Internet site vowed to attack Israel's ally the United States, which unlike many countries did not condemn the assassination.

U.S. stocks and the dollar plunged as news of Yassin's death added to market fears. Sentiment remained fragile yesterday.