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Israeli Strike Kills 2, Injures Hamas Leader

The Gaza City bombing is in reprisal for two suicide attacks. Ahmed Korei formally accepts Arafat's offer of the post of prime minister.

September 11, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — An Israeli warplane dropped a half-ton bomb on the Gaza City home of a top Hamas leader on Wednesday, killing his adult son and a bodyguard in swift retaliation for a pair of Palestinian suicide bombings that killed 15 people in Jerusalem and suburban Tel Aviv.

Israeli troops also briefly thrust into the West Bank city of Ramallah, engaging in scattered clashes and prompting Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to barricade himself inside his compound.

Spurred by the spiraling violence, Arafat's prime minister-designate, Ahmed Korei, formally accepted the job and said he would seek to be sworn in as soon as today, together with a hastily assembled "crisis Cabinet." Korei was chosen during the weekend by Arafat to replace Mahmoud Abbas, pushed out by infighting with the Palestinian Authority president.

With all sides acknowledging that a U.S.-backed peace initiative lies in ruins, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon contemplated wide-ranging attacks meant to crush Palestinian militant groups and moved to weigh anew the fate of Arafat, whom Israel considers an architect of terrorism.

Sharon cut short a trip to India to fly home Wednesday, and senior aides said security consultations on his return would center on Arafat's role in the latest round of conflict.

The target of Israel's airstrike in Gaza, Hamas founding member Mahmoud Zahar, escaped from the rubble of his two-story home with relatively minor wounds, as did his 9-year-old daughter. His wife was more seriously hurt, hospital officials said. The slain son, Khaled, in his mid-20s, was their eldest.

Zahar, a 58-year-old physician who works out of a storefront clinic in a Gaza slum, voiced defiance after the failed assassination attempt. Israel, he said from his hospital bed, "will have to bear responsibility for the consequences." The military wing of Hamas, infuriated by the strike -- the first in which Israel targeted the home of a leader -- said it would begin attacking Israeli homes and residential buildings in response.

Israel has killed a dozen Hamas leaders and operatives with pinpoint airstrikes in Gaza over the last three weeks -- a campaign inaugurated after Hamas carried out a Jerusalem bus bombing that killed more than 20 people.

Hamas also claimed responsibility for Tuesday's suicide attacks -- one that killed nine people, including the bomber, outside an army base near Tel Aviv and another in a bustling Jerusalem cafe that killed eight people, including the bomber.

Even before Hamas acknowledged carrying out the latest attacks, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered an intensification of the campaign of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders, according to Israeli news reports.

Hamas had pledged to "open the gates of hell" after Israel's failed attempt Saturday to kill its entire top echelon, including spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in a single strike.

Israel remained on a state of extremely high alert against new suicide bombings, deploying thousands of police and soldiers at points where attackers might try to enter from the West Bank.

But a similarly massive security presence had failed to prevent Tuesday's assailants from making their way to their targets inside Israel.

The suicide bombings, staged five hours apart, were clearly coordinated, Israeli authorities said. The bombers were identified as members of the same extended clan from the West Bank village of Rantis, north of Ramallah. Israeli troops stormed the village Wednesday and made 20 arrests.

Israeli soldiers also staged a brief incursion into Ramallah on Wednesday afternoon, firing shots into the air and clashing with stone-throwing youths, Palestinian witnesses said. Arafat's aides hastily closed the gates of his walled headquarters, known as the Muqata, to which he has been confined for nearly two years. But the Israeli troops did not approach.

The move to seek quick confirmation for Korei and his government probably was propelled by the sense that a continuing Palestinian power vacuum would give Sharon more of a free hand in striking at Arafat.

Korei said he would seek to form an emergency Cabinet consisting of only six to eight ministers -- about one-third the size of the previous Cabinet.

Between meetings with foreign diplomats at his office in the village of Abu Dis on Jerusalem's outskirts, Korei appealed to Israel to work with him to try to quell the violence.

"Let us set to work and try to control the prevailing situation," he said. "I call on the Israeli government to reflect, and stay away from the arrogance of might."

Israeli officials, in a view that has been echoed by the United States, said the extent to which they would be willing to deal with Korei depended on the steps he took to crack down on Palestinian militant groups -- something he has not pledged to do.

Israel has said it considers Arafat to be complicit in attacks by groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but Sharon has refrained from moving against him. Many in Israel's security and political establishment advocate Arafat's expulsion, but they worry that the pitfalls outweigh the benefits.

"In a way, we are as trapped as Arafat is in his compound," said analyst Joseph Nevo of the University of Haifa. "In exile, Arafat would be an even stronger symbol to his people, and most decision-makers in Israel know that, whatever their wish for revenge against him."

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