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Sharon Lauds Hebron Killing

Israeli premier praises Saturday action aimed at a Hamas leader. But Powell expresses regret for any 'impediment to progress' on peace plan.

June 23, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday expressed satisfaction with Israel's latest killing of a Hamas leader, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell cautioned that such actions could prove an "impediment to progress" toward implementing the troubled U.S.-backed peace plan.

Powell's comments came as he met in neighboring Jordan with architects of the plan, known as the "road map." The mediators urged all parties to continue talks to try to overcome what has been a rocky start for the initiative.

Sounding much like the army field commander he was for so many years, Sharon praised his troops for hunting down Abdullah Kawasme, wanted for allegedly masterminding a string of Palestinian suicide bombings. Kawasme was gunned down Saturday night outside a mosque in the West Bank town of Hebron, where he was the head of the local branch of Hamas' military wing, Izzidin al-Qassam.

"I would like to thank the security forces for last night's successful and very important action in Hebron," the prime minister told his Cabinet on Sunday. "This was a vital action designed to provide security for Israel's citizens."

From the earliest weeks of the 33-month-old Palestinian uprising, Israel has carried out what it calls "targeted killings" -- more than 150 of them, by the count of human rights groups -- of Palestinian militants who it said were involved in planning or preparing to carry out suicide bombings, shootings, ambushes and other attacks against Israelis.

Israeli human rights groups, one of which has lodged a legal appeal against the practice, say most of these deaths can only be considered extrajudicial executions.

"It's essentially taking someone and imposing the death penalty on him without giving him an opportunity to defend himself in court," said Hannah Friedman, executive director of the Committee Against Torture, which is scheduled to argue its case before the Israeli Supreme Court next month. "It's not right."

To a greater degree than some recent Israeli targets, the 43-year-old Kawasme appeared to fit the profile of a "ticking bomb" -- someone who poses an imminent danger unless stopped by whatever means necessary.

He headed the Hamas cell in Hebron, a tight-knit group of young men, some of them soccer buddies, blamed by Israel for carrying out attacks that have killed 35 Israelis and injured nearly 150 others. The latest of these was a suicide bombing on a bus in the heart of Jerusalem on June 11, a week after the peace plan was launched, which left 17 Israelis dead.

Israel did not disclose specific intelligence pointing to another imminent attack by the Hebron cell but said Kawasme had played a key role in its activities. He was believed to have served as both an "engineer" -- a bomb maker -- as well as a handler of young charges, recruiting and then dispatching them on deadly missions.

Kawasme was a "classical ticking bomb -- in fact, a whole assembly line of ticking bombs," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel's Cabinet on Sunday, according to an official who was present at the closed-door session.

In some respects, the Kawasme case is murky because it is not clear that Israel deliberately set out to kill him. The army says arrest was its preferred option -- "that was the aim here," an Israeli security source said.

The most likely scenario, according to observers familiar with such operations, is that the troops were told to bring Kawasme in if they could, but to kill him without hesitation if they encountered resistance.

Walking into Israeli commandos' carefully laid trap, Kawasme was mortally wounded before he had a chance to fire a shot, according to Palestinian witnesses. Israeli security sources said he was armed with an M-16 assault rifle and a pistol, and he brandished at least one weapon but did not open fire.

No bystanders were hurt, despite the fact that Kawasme was targeted in a crowded city center.

Israeli security officials expressed satisfaction at having kept this strike "surgical" -- which is far easier to do, one military source noted, when the weapons involved are automatic rifles rather than helicopter-fired missiles. Those were used in a wave of strikes against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip earlier this month, which killed six of the seven targeted men but also killed more than a dozen passersby and wounded scores more.

Hamas is well aware that the targeted killings -- and most crucially, their timing -- have driven a wedge between the United States and Israel.

From the beginning of the still-nascent peace process, President Bush and Sharon appeared to have had fundamentally different understandings of what would trigger the decision to carry out such a killing.

The U.S. administration seemed caught off guard by Israel's June 10 attempt to kill Abdulaziz Rantisi, a high-profile Hamas official who had long been viewed as a political leader, primarily serving as spokesman for the group.

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