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Defying Sharon, Hamas Warns of More Blasts

Attacks: Group based in the Gaza Strip says suicide bombings will continue. A day earlier, Israel's leader vowed to destroy the militants.

June 26, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — Hamas leaders vowed Tuesday that their Islamic movement would continue suicide attacks on Israelis and dismissed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stated intention to destroy the militant group in its Gaza Strip stronghold.

A day after Sharon issued his threat and President Bush said Palestinian statehood can come only after terrorist attacks cease and Palestinians replace their leadership, the Gaza Strip on Tuesday was tense but quiet.

Speaking to a committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Sharon elaborated on the pledge he made to his Likud Party on Monday that he would launch a massive operation in Gaza against Hamas.

He has no intention of reoccupying Gaza, Sharon reportedly said, but intends to deal a blow to Hamas. His statement was interpreted by Israeli analysts as meaning that Israel will step up targeted killings of the militant group's leaders.

Israeli helicopters killed six Palestinians in the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Monday, and the army later said it had targeted Yasser Rizik, who was among the dead. Rizik was a senior Hamas activist in the town.

"We are taking precautions, but we must always take precautions," Ismail abu Shanab, a Hamas spokesman, said Tuesday. "What more can Sharon do to us that he has not already done? The resistance will continue."

As Abu Shanab spoke in his Gaza City home, Israeli troops continued search-and-arrest operations throughout the West Bank in what the army described as counter-terrorism measures.

What Israel has dubbed Operation Determined Path began last week, after back-to-back suicide bombings in Jerusalem killed 26 Israelis. Sharon has said troops will remain in the West Bank as long as it takes to destroy militant groups carrying out such attacks.

As of Tuesday, Israeli soldiers were occupying seven of the eight major West Bank cities, with Jericho still not held. Palestinians said four of their policemen were shot dead Tuesday in clashes with troops in Hebron, where tanks shelled the Palestinian Authority's headquarters overnight and troops imposed a curfew on residents.

About 150 Palestinians who had sought shelter in the headquarters surrendered to troops Tuesday morning. The army later said that 20 of those were wanted militants. In a statement, the army said it uncovered an explosives laboratory in Hebron and found weapons caches in other cities.

Palestinian officials have denounced the operation as reimposing Israeli military control over West Bank territories ceded to the Palestinians after the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Many Palestinians said Tuesday that they believed that Bush's speech laying out his vision of Middle East peace gave Sharon a green light to continue the military offensive.

Abu Shanab said Hamas is waiting to see whether the speech will short-circuit the latest attempt by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to rein in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two organizations that have rejected his demand that militants stop targeting Israelis inside Israel's pre-1967 borders.

Both groups have taken responsibility for carrying out many of the suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis in the last two years.

"I think the speech makes it much more difficult for Arafat" to arrest Islamic militants, Abu Shanab said. "The people will not allow it."

On Sunday, Palestinian police arrested about 15 people in Gaza linked to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but Palestinian sources said none was a significant figure. The security forces later declared that Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, was under house arrest. But Yassin's supporters flocked to his modest home in a poor neighborhood of Gaza City, where they clashed with police and drove officers away.

Abu Shanab said Bush's speech was so favorable to Israel that it left Arafat no choice but to abandon any notion of cracking down on militants.

"Now, if the Palestinian Authority is seen to be stopping this intifada, arresting Palestinians, nobody among the Palestinians will accept this," he said.

That analysis was challenged by Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and a longtime critic of Arafat.

Bush's speech put Arafat on notice, Sourani said, that the Palestinian leader is fighting for his political life. He will be forced to arrest militants to demonstrate to the United States and Israel that he can still exert authority.

"You will see," Sourani said. "Arafat will crack down on the Islamists." And any serious crackdown, he said, could lead to civil war among the Palestinians.

During nearly two years of bloody conflict with Israel, Arafat appears to have made no serious attempt to rein in militants. Palestinian analysts in Gaza said a real crackdown would mean arresting gunmen and not just the political leaders or spokesmen of Hamas, who have been put under house arrest or briefly incarcerated by Arafat several times since the Palestinian uprising erupted in September 2000.

Arafat now might have the political motivation to confront militants, but his security forces are in disarray and Palestinians are boiling mad over both Bush's speech and Israel's latest invasion of the West Bank, Sourani said.

"I can say now that we will have a Palestinian state in three years," Sourani said. "A state in three years, but a blood bath in the coming weeks."

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