Israel tells Palestinians it was not behind assassination

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ISRAEL was trying hard yesterday to persuade Palestinians that it was not behind the mysterious death of Muhyideen al-Sharif, the Islamic militant and bomb-maker.

Ami Ayalon, head of Israel's internal security, saw Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, after midnight. An Israeli source said: "Ayalon stressed to Arafat that Israel was not responsible for Sharif `s death and Arafat briefed Ayalon on the Palestinian investigation."

The controversy over who killed Sharif is important because Hamas, the organisation to which he belonged, has said it will make revenge attacks. Israelis and Palestinians both think these are near inevitable, despite an increase in security.Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, says he will hold Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority responsible for whatever happens.

The argument for Israeli involvement rests on motive, modus operandi and the pathologist's report. Sharif was the member of the military wing of Hamas most wanted by Israel because of his involvement in organising suicide bombings. Israel has previously assassinated Hamas leaders. The last such attempt, in Amman, Jordan last year, involved an elaborate attempt to conceal the identity of those behind the killing.

The pathologist's report says Sharif was shot dead three hours before the explosion which mutilated his body. None of this is conclusive. But as Palestinians see Mr Netanyahu as reneging on an agreement to withdraw from the West Bank, they are unlikely to give Israel the benefit of the doubt.

Mr Sharif's funeral in Ramallah was attended even by moderate Palestinian leaders such as Faisal Husseini. He said: "Sharif is a Palestinian martyr and Israel is responsible for his death." He claimed that on the same weekend Israel had rebuffed Dennis Ross, the US peace envoy, it also sent an assassination squad into an autonomous Palestinian enclave, adding: "The peace process cannot go on like this."