Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 1 News List

More militant leaders to die, Israeli officials warn

FALTERING PEACE PLAN The attack on a Hamas leader and the promise of revenge by angry Palestinians has set the stage for a new round of violence in the Middle East

AP , JERUSALEM

Israel plans to kill more militant chiefs in raids mirroring a lethal missile strike on a top Hamas leader, Israeli officials warned yesterday, as tens of thousands of Palestinians at his funeral promised thunderous revenge.

Palestinian leaders said Thursday's killing of Ismail Abu Shanab, a top aide to Hamas chief Ahmed Yassin, ruined what was to be an imminent campaign against militants by Palestinian security forces that would have included arrests and weapons roundups.

The militants called off their two-month-old ceasefire and promised more suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli targets, raising the chances that a new round of Mideast violence will sink a US-backed peace plan that aims to stop three years of violence and create a Palestinian state.

Hamas quickly dispatched squads of young activists in Gaza to launch homemade rockets into Israel. By yesterday morning, six of the crude projectiles had been fired, damaging two houses but causing no injuries. More than a dozen mortars were also launched at Jewish settlements within Gaza, damaging another house.

Several high-ranking Israeli military officials said on condition of anonymity that there were plans to kill other top Hamas leaders if there are new Palestinian suicide attacks and no efforts by Palestinian police forces to arrest extremists.

Speaking at the funeral of Abu Shanab, another Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who survived an Israeli rocket attack on his car in June, said that if the Israelis kill him and other top militants, a secret leadership is ready to take over.

"They think that targeting leaders will stop jihad. They are mistaken," he said. "All of us in Hamas from top to bottom are looking to become like Abu Shanab."

A Palestinian suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus on Tuesday killed 20 people, including six children, prompting Israel's strike on Abu Shanab, a 53-year-old Hamas leader and US-educated civil engineer.

On Friday, Israel's Maariv newspaper published photos of 34 top Palestinian militants on a deck of cards in an imitation of the cards the US military hands out to soldiers showing the faces of wanted Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's deposed government. The ace of hearts is Yassin. The joker is Yasser Arafat.

An Israeli security source said all Hamas leaders were now considered fair targets and new strikes would be launched after a 24-hour lull to give Palestinians a chance to act on their own against militants.

"We were waiting to see even just one Hamas arrest," he said.

Under the "road map" peace plan, launched on June 4, the Palestinians are required to dismantle militant groups.

After Tuesday's suicide attack in Jerusalem, aides to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas said for the first time that he would go after militants, something he had previously rejected for fear of setting off a civil war. But those plans were scrapped after Israel's helicopter attack, which killed Abu Shanab and two bodyguards, the aides said.

Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Zayyad said that the renewed violence threatens to topple the already weak prime minister -- also known as Abu Mazen -- who was appointed in April under pressure from US and Israeli leaders searching for an alternative to Arafat.

"If this situation continues, Abu Mazen will not last long," Abu Zayyad said. "Those interested in Abu Mazen's success must pressure Israel to stop undermining his government."

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