- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israel threatened to target more high-level Palestinian militants yesterday, one day after helicopter missiles killed a Hamas leader and while thousands of Palestinians marching at his funeral vowed revenge.

Israel fired at three Palestinian militants taking refuge on a hospital rooftop in the West Bank city of Nablus, killing one of them. Israeli officials said the three men were wanted in connection with a suicide attacks earlier this month.

On the diplomatic front, an adviser to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak engaged in a round of shuttle diplomacy aimed at resuscitating the wounded U.S. peace initiative.

Palestinian leaders said the killing of Ismail Abu Shanab, a top aide to Hamas chief Ahmed Yassin, ruined an imminent campaign against militants by Palestinian security forces that would have included arrests and weapons roundups.

The militants called off their 2-month-old cease-fire and vowed more suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli targets, raising chances that a new round of Mideast violence will scuttle a U.S.-backed peace plan intended to stop three years of violence and create a Palestinian state.

Several high-ranking Israeli military officials yesterday told the Associated Press and Reuters news agency there were plans to kill other top Hamas leaders if new Palestinian suicide attacks occur and Palestinian police forces make no effort to arrest extremists.

An Israeli security source told the AP that all Hamas leaders were now considered fair targets and new strikes would be launched after a 24-hour lull to give Palestinians a chance to act on their own against militants.

“We were waiting to see even just one Hamas arrest,” he said.

Speaking at the funeral of Mr. Abu Shanab, Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who survived an Israeli rocket attack on his car in June, said that if the Israelis kill top militants, a secret leadership is ready to take over.

“They think that targeting leaders will stop [holy war]. They are mistaken,” the AP quoted Mr. Aziz Rantisi as saying. “All of us in Hamas from top to bottom are looking to become like Abu Shanab.”

Anger boiled in the streets of Gaza City where tens of thousands attended the funeral of Mr. Abu Shanab, 53, to show solidarity with the militant group and call for revenge.

“[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has climbed up a tall ladder,” Mr. Aziz Rantisi said. “The ground will soon shudder with the blows of the Qassem” rockets.

Hamas dispatched squads of young activists in Gaza to launch homemade rockets into Israel. By yesterday morning, six of the crude projectiles had been fired, damaging two houses but causing no injuries. More than a dozen mortars were also launched at Jewish settlements within Gaza, damaging another house.

Israel began the day by reinstating road blocks on the Gaza Strip’s main highway, saying it had served as a conduit for Palestinian explosives during the cease-fire.

By evening, armored units had begun preparations for a possible plan to retake the northern Gaza Strip in order to silence the rocket attacks by Hamas militants, according to Israel television’s Channel One news.

The stepped-up military presence in the Gaza Strip marks a reversal of the June transfer of security authority there from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, one of the first key achievements of the peace “road map.”

Throughout the West Bank, Israeli troops continued to comb through cities in search of militants.

In the city of Nablus, soldiers fired at three militants from a group affiliated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement who had barricaded themselves on a hospital rooftop, killing one of them and injuring the other two. Israel accused the militants from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade of using the hospital as a command center.

Meanwhile, Egyptian envoy Osama El Baz, an aide to the Egyptian president, arrived in the region to hold talks with both Israeli and Palestinian sides in an effort to restore some of the calm that had prevailed since the beginning of July.

The Palestinian cease-fire had originally been brokered with the active involvement the Egyptians. Following talks with Mr. Arafat, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and a separate meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Mr. El Baz warned of “catastrophic” consequences if the sides weren’t able make progress.

“It’s very important to stop this escalation and to bring the situation back to the way it was before the [missile attack],” he said.

A Palestinian spokesman said Mr. El Baz was also trying to restore contacts between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, which had been suspended after the Tuesday bus bombing in Jerusalem in which 20 Israelis were killed, about one-third of them children.

In Washington, the Bush administration yesterday froze the assets of six senior Hamas leaders and five European-based organizations it says raise money for the radical Palestinian group.

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