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Hamas Leader Had Plotted Attack, Israel Says

Mideast: Militant slain in bombing aimed to kill hundreds, defense minister declares.

July 26, 2002|From Times Wire Services

JERUSALEM — Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said Thursday that the Hamas military commander killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip had been plotting a "mega-attack" that could have killed hundreds of Israelis.

"We knew this man was sitting and planning perhaps the largest terror attack that ever happened in Israel. We call it here a 'mega-attack'--it was a truck with a ton of explosives whose aim was to ... cause hundreds of deaths," Ben-Eliezer told members of his center-left Labor Party.

The raid that killed Salah Shehada and 14 other Palestinians, nine of them children, raised an international outcry against Israel and accusations that it sought to undermine efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Ben-Eliezer voiced regret over the civilians killed when an Israeli fighter plane bombed the house where Shehada was spending the night with his wife, daughter and a Hamas deputy in a crowded residential block of Gaza City.

Ben-Eliezer insisted that he did not know there were civilians within reach of the explosion when he approved the strike.

Hamas, a militant group that opposes Israel's existence, has spearheaded a campaign of suicide bombings that has killed scores of Israelis in a 22-month-old Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The group vowed revenge after Israel's strike in Gaza, and Palestinian gunmen early Thursday killed a rabbi and wounded another Israeli in a roadside ambush.

Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, 43, was killed near the Jewish settlement of Elei Zahav, south of the Palestinian town of Kalkilya, the Israeli military said.

Early today, Israeli tanks entered Gaza City, residents said, in the first military activity since the bombing of the Hamas leader Tuesday.

Witnesses said that seven tanks accompanied a bulldozer that flattened a small Palestinian military intelligence position and a metal workshop, and then soldiers blew up another workshop.

Gunmen shot at the Israelis, and two Palestinians were wounded in an exchange of fire, the witnesses said.

The Israeli military said soldiers destroyed three buildings where rockets were made, blowing up 22 Kassam rockets in the process.

Hours earlier, a rocket hit an Israeli village just outside Gaza, causing some damage but no casualties.

Meanwhile, another victim of last week's suicide bombing in Tel Aviv died of his wounds Thursday, police said.

Three foreign workers and another Israeli were also killed in the attack on July 18, in which two suicide bombers blew themselves up a few seconds apart.

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