- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel assassinated a top Hamas leader in a helicopter missile attack yesterday afternoon, prompting the Islamic militant group to declare an end to its eight-week cease-fire against Israel.

Ismail Abu Shanab, 53, was killed when missiles hit his car as it drove through downtown Gaza City yesterday afternoon. The strike also killed two of Mr. Abu Shanab’s bodyguards and wounded dozens.

The attack was an Israeli response to Hamas’ bus bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday night that killed 20 persons, including six children. But it undermined Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and threatened to destroy the fledgling U.S. peace initiative, known as the “road map.”

Already last night, Palestinian militants fired Qassem rockets from the Gaza Strip at the Israeli town of Sderot and a nearby kibbutz. Meanwhile, thousands of Gazans marched through the street calling for revenge while Hamas leaders called on Mr. Abbas to resign.

Mr. Abu Shanab, considered a pragmatist among Hamas’ political leadership, operated as a key negotiator in the talks with Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority that led to the June 29 declaration of a three-month cease-fire, known in Arabic as a “hudna.”

“Sharon has assassinated the hudna,” said Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “The hudna is over now. Sharon is a murderer and a terrorist and believes only in bloodshed.”

Shortly after 1 p.m., an Israeli helicopter fired a missile that exploded in front of Mr. Abu Shanab’s white Volkswagen. A witness said the passengers in the car tried to escape the vehicle, but before they could get out another three missiles struck the car.

Panicked bystanders fled for cover. Just as they began to return to the vehicle, a fifth missile hit the car.

In another response to the bus bombing, Israeli troops entered the West Bank cities of Jenin, Nablus and Tulkarm on Wednesday to arrest militants and demolish the Hebron house belonging to the family of the suicide bomber responsible for the Jerusalem attack.

U.S. officials say the road map is still intact despite the latest round of violence. Ambassador John Wolf, who cut short a vacation to return to Israel this week, held talks with Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip yesterday to discuss the peace plan.

“The alternative to the road map is that both sides will fall off a cliff,” said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. “So we have to understand the consequences of the end of the road map.”

Israeli officials accused Hamas of breaking the cease-fire twice in the last 10 days, and said they were simply doing the work that the Palestinian Authority had failed to do. The missile attacks last night imperiled Israel’s eight-week pullback from the Gaza Strip.

Although Israel was not a formal party to the moratorium on attacks and warned that militants were not resting, the army was instructed to ease up on its offensives.

“Israel was always skeptical about the hudna. But nonetheless we wanted to see if Mahmoud Abbas could turn it into a real cease-fire,” said Dore Gold, an adviser to Mr. Sharon. “We have faced two attacks and we didn’t do anything. Are we supposed to sit on our hands and allow ourselves to be slaughtered? Those are rules of the game that Israel will not accept.”

Mr. Abu Shanab, an electrical-engineering lecturer who studied in the United States, is the most senior figure in Hamas to be assassinated during the three-year uprising. Israel, which has pursued a policy of assassinating those considered involved in attacks, said Mr. Abu Shanab gave a green light for attacks despite his political role.

Mr. Abbas called the attack a crime and a blow to the peace process.

The Palestinian prime minister depended on the cease-fire to buy him the relative calm that allowed Israeli security chiefs to approve the pullbacks from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The pullbacks are part of the road map and vital to his popularity.

Under pressure from Israel and the United States to crack down on Hamas, Mr. Abbas met with Yasser Arafat to discuss how to punish the Islamic militant group.

A Palestinian spokesman said a roundup planned for last night had been called off by the prime minister after the assassination. “This will add to [Mr. Abbas] overloaded wagon,” said spokesman Saeb Erekat.

“We are watching maybe a total collapse of attempts to revive the peace process unless we have direct intervention of the U.S. president by introducing monitors on the ground,” he said.

A funeral is planned for Mr. Abu Shanab today in Gaza and is expected to draw tens of thousands of mourners and more calls for revenge.

Young boys are again painting militant slogans on Gaza’s walls after the Palestinian Authority whitewashed the graffiti at the start of the cease-fire.

“We accepted the hudna, and they have not stopped hitting us,” said Talat Al Rayes, 17, who witnessed the strike. “I don’t think anybody will accept it now.”

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