- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

TEL AVIV — Israeli forces killed four Palestinians, including at least two Hamas commanders, in a missile attack in Gaza City yesterday, just hours after a Palestinian rocket landed on an Israeli beach near a major city.

With last night’s attack, Israel made good on a warning by its military chief of staff earlier yesterday that the army would continue targeting leaders of Hamas unless the Palestinian Authority began a crackdown on the Islamic militant group.

The attack, the second Israeli assassination strike in four days, came while Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is embroiled in what appears to be a new spat with President Yasser Arafat about control of Palestinian security forces. About 10 Palestinians were injured in the attack.

The exchanges of fire threaten prospects for the 13-week-old U.S. peace initiative known as the “road map.” A Jerusalem bus bombing killed 21 persons Tuesday, and the killing of a top Hamas leader Thursday has left the multistage plan seriously at risk.

The Gaza Strip is shaping up as the testing ground for Palestinian efforts to fight militants — a key demand of the road map. Israel wants an end to the launching of the primitive Qassam rockets into Israeli cities. The bombardment yesterday near Ashkelon was deepest strike into Israel yet.

“The hardened core of terrorism is in the Gaza Strip,” said Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon earlier yesterday. “If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t touch this hardened core, we will. From the first to the last, everyone is a target.”

About 9:30 p.m. an Israeli air force helicopter launched three missiles on a Palestinian car traveling through the Gaza City seaside neighborhood of Rimal. The missiles landed several hundred yards from the office of Palestinian Interior Minister Mohammed Dahlan and the Gaza residence of Yasser Arafat.

The attack killed two leading Hamas members, Ahmed Aishtawi and Waheed Hamaf. Israeli security sources said Mr. Aishtawi had functioned as Hamas’ top military commander during the past year and that Mr. Hamaf was an aide. Those injured in the attack included one child, who was in critical condition.

Israel Radio reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had personally overseen the final preparations for the attack.

A spokesman for Mr. Dahlan said the assassination policy undermined Palestinian efforts to rein in militants because any operation would be seen as collaborating with Israel.

“We need the Israelis to stay away at a distance. They’re putting us in an impossible situation,” said Elias Zananiri. “If the Israelis want us to work according to their own agenda, it isn’t going to work. We’re not stooges.”

In Washington, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Luger said yesterday that direct military involvement by the United States and its NATO allies may be needed to ease the conflict.

“If we’re serious about having a situation of stability, a very direct action, I think, is going to be required,” Mr. Lugar, Indiana Republican, said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

The Bush administration “has to figure out who is going to go after the terrorists,” Mr. Lugar added, saying that U.S. military involvement “has to be a potential possibility.”

On Thursday, Israel assassinated Ismail Abu Shanab, a top Hamas political leader in the Gaza Strip. Outrage about the killing brought more than 100,000 Palestinians into the streets of Gaza City on Friday with calls for revenge. Palestinian Authority officials say this kind of atmosphere makes a crackdown impossible.

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat have been at odds about the security forces since the middle of last week, when the Palestinian prime minister suggested rounding up Hamas activists in the wake of the Jerusalem bombing and Mr. Arafat reportedly balked. The two share control of the Palestinian Authority’s security branches.

During the weekend, top members of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party suggested appointing Nasser Yousef, an Arafat loyalist, as the top commander of all the forces. Mr. Abbas reportedly rejected the proposal, which would have meant the dismissal of Mr. Dahlan, his handpicked security chief.

Israel has accused the Palestinians of doing next to nothing to stop militant activity in the Gaza Strip since the army withdrew in early July. While Israeli tanks have been massed near the Gaza Strip border, Israeli officials have warned that if no action is taken, Israel will retake parts of the Gaza Strip, which would be a major setback for the road map.

Yesterday Palestinian police officers in the border town of Rafah sealed five tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. Stopping the weapons trafficking across the border is one of the main demands of Israeli security officials.

Israel belittled the Palestinian operation, saying it was no more than a public relations stunt because the tunnels weren’t destroyed.

“It’s one thing to blow up an illegal tunnel, and it’s another thing to shovel some sand and invite the entire international media to see it. The latter is not serious,” said Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“What was done today wasn’t serious. They’re trying to throw … sand in our eyes.”

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