A booby-trapped cellular phone yesterday killed the Palestinian bomb maker Yahya Ayyash, also known as 'The Engineer', who organised a series of devastating suicide attacks against Israeli targets over the past two years. He died in a house in Gaza when he picked up the phone containing just two ounces of explosives said Palestinian officials.
Israel had long tried to track down Ayyash, whom it saw as the father of the suicide bombing campaign which killed over 70 Israelis and wounded another 250 in 1994 and 1995. As the Koran was recited in mourning for his death over loudspeakers in mosques across Gaza, the militant islamic organisation Hamas to which Ayyash belonged said it had his body and promised to carry out revenge attacks.
The 30-year-old former chemistry student died in Beit Lahiya refugee camp in the north of the Gaza strip where he was hiding in the house of a Hamas militant. In a statement Hamas said: "Let the occupying invaders and their stooges await the response to the Zionist crime." It accused the Palestinian Authority of Yassir Arafat, the PLO chairman, of failing to defend its own people against Israel.
Jubilant Israeli ministers made little effort to conceal that their government was responsible for the death of Ayyash. Born in the village of Rafat just inside the western boundary of the West Bank, he studied chemistry at Bir Zeit university north of Jerusalem. Wanted by Israel since 1992, he had repeatedly eluded capture. For many Israelis and Palestinians he was the symbol of the suicide bombing campaign in which Islamic militants blew themselves up in order to kill the maximum number of Israelis.
Yaakov Perry, the former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, said yesterday: "I can say with satisfaction that the Engineer has ended his operations." In practice, however, his death is unlikely to have much effect on the ability of the Izzedine Qassem military wing of Hamas to resume its bombing campaign which has never been short of volunteers or technical expertise. But the ability of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to get a booby trapped phone into the house where Ayyash was staying shows that it must have very precise information about the organisation.
In October Fathi Shkaki, the leader of Islamic Jihad, the other Islamic militant organisation which carried out suicide bombings, was assassinated, almost certainly by Israeli agents, in Malta. The death of Ayyash is evidently part of the same Israeli campaign to eliminate the leaders of the suicide attacks. Former Shin Bet officials were openly eager to claim a success yesterday in order to restore their reputation, badly damaged by their failure to prevent the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, on 4 November.
As Ayyash's death was announced on mosque loudspeakers in Beit Lahiya, hundreds of Palestinians poured into the streets in panic as police cars and ambulances rushed to the scene. A speaker at one mosque said: "Hamas is saying that our hero, the hero of all the bombings, is a martyr."
Long before reports of the death of Ayyash Hamas officials were divided about the gains to be made by continuing the bombing campaign. It faces severe repression by Israel and the security forces of Mr Arafat in Gaza and the West Bank towns which are now under his control.