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Blast Kills Hamas Official in Syria; Israel Denies Any Role

Sharon's government, which threatened the group after bombings, expresses satisfaction.

September 27, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Only weeks after Israel publicly threatened to take its war with the Islamic militant group Hamas onto Syrian soil, a Hamas official in Damascus was killed Sunday when a powerful explosion tore through his sport utility vehicle.

Israeli officials disavowed knowledge of the blast that killed 42-year-old Izzedine Sheik Khalil, who had lived in the Syrian capital for the last 13 years and was reportedly a member of the group's military wing.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government expressed satisfaction over the death, and some news reports here cited security sources as indicating that Israel was responsible.

If so, it would be Israel's first known assassination of a Hamas operative outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though it has on rare occasions struck at prominent Palestinian militant leaders on foreign soil.

Syria, in statements carried by its official news agency, blamed Israel for the attack and denounced it as a terrorist act. But Israeli commentators said the likelihood of any direct Syrian military response was extremely remote, because of the vastly superior strength of Israel's armed forces.

Khalil died instantly when his four-wheel-drive vehicle exploded just after he climbed in and started it, according to witnesses and news reports from the scene. Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language television channels showed footage of smoking wreckage at the blast site, in the Zahraa district of Damascus.

Israel had explicitly threatened the group's Syria-based leadership after Hamas took responsibility for near-simultaneous suicide bombings Aug. 31 aboard two buses in the Negev desert city of Beersheba. Sixteen passengers died along with the two Palestinian attackers.

Although the bombers were dispatched by a Hamas cell based in the West Bank town of Hebron, top Israeli defense and political leaders declared at the time that the attack had been inspired by Hamas officials in Syria. Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army chief of staff, said then that Israel would "deal with" backers of terror, including "terror command posts in Damascus."

Senior Israeli officials said they knew nothing of Sunday's attack. "But I'm glad about it," said Gideon Ezra, the acting public security minister.

Sharon aide Raanan Gissin also denied any direct knowledge of the strike, but observed: "We had certainly put them on notice."

Analysts described the strike as meant to send a clear signal to Syria -- and potentially others as well -- that Israel would no longer tolerate neighboring countries giving Palestinian militants a haven for planning attacks.

"This is a new stage," said Jonathan Fighel, an analyst with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "It's a straightforward message to Syria, and one they have to take very seriously."

For Israel to acknowledge responsibility for such a killing, even in an indirect fashion, would be very unusual, said Dennis Ross, who served as a U.S. special envoy to the Middle East under President Clinton.

"The Israelis have sent a message that there will be no sanctuary for Hamas in Damascus, that they can't operate with impunity," said Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's a message for both Hamas and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, that if you keep this up, you are playing with fire."

Some analysts warned of a heightened danger of retaliatory strikes against Jewish targets outside of Israel by Syria's proxy, the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim radical group Hezbollah.

"Obviously not every synagogue and Jewish community center in the world can protect itself, and that's the danger here," said historian Michael Oren, a senior research fellow at the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center. "Syria does not have the wherewithal to do anything directly, but it can say the word to Hezbollah."

Shortly after the explosion, Al Jazeera carried a report saying Hamas was threatening to strike at targets outside Israel in response, but that was quickly contradicted by Hamas officials in Beirut and Gaza.

In its nearly two decades of existence, Hamas has always ruled out widening its war on Israel to the outside world. "Our struggle is here," Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader whom Israel assassinated in March, often said.

Hamas spokesmen, though, made thinly veiled appeals to other groups to act to avenge the death of Khalil.

"Our conflict arena is still the Palestinian area," said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. But he added: "We are confident that our Arab and Islamic nation will not stand by with hands tied."

Over the last 18 months, Israeli assassinations have decimated the leadership ranks of Hamas in Gaza, and driven the survivors deep underground -- which has had the perhaps unintended effect of shifting the balance of power toward the group's principal leadership in exile, in Damascus.

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