Hamas leaders pledged bloody retaliation yesterday after one of its senior figures in Damascus was assassinated in an attack widely read as a new departure in Israel's pursuit of militant faction leaders.
Izz El-Deen Sheikh Khalil was killed when his car exploded as he tried to start it, at about 10.45am outside his home in the Zaarah neighbourhood of Damascus. It is thought to be the first assassination of its kind of a Palestinian leader in Syria.
Although Israel refused to confirm or deny Israeli media reports that it was behind the attack, the Palestinian Authority blamed Ariel Sharon's government for the killing. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a senior adviser to the PA President, Yasser Arafat, called the killing an "extremely dangerous" move and called on the international community to block repeats of what the PA claimed was an attempt by Israel to derail any peace process. Asked about Israel's involvement, Gideon Ezra, the Internal Security Minister, told Israeli television: I am not confirming it. I am not denying it. But I am not sorry it happened."
Mr Khalil, a founder member of the militant Palestinian faction, was believed to be in charge of Hamas's military wing outside the Palestinian territories after being expelled from Gaza to Syria with 400 other militants in 1992. Israel Radio reported that Mr Khalil, 42, helped train Hamas's chief bomb-maker, Yehiya Ayash, who was assassinated by Israel in January 1996 when it booby-trapped his cellular phone.
But sources in Damascus said the dead man had not been actively involved in Hamas's military operations recently.
Mr Khalil got into his car and received a phone call just before the bomb went off, witnesses said. A statement from the Syrian Interior Ministry said the car had been booby-trapped. "I saw him come out and waved to him," said one witness as he sat stunned amid the rubble and shards of glass in his shop, the front of which had been blown out by the force of the blast. "Then I saw the explosion. I didn't hear it because it was so strong. It must have been about 15 meters away. I just panicked."
Another neighbour said "He [Mr Khalil] said good morning to us like he does every day and then walked to his car. He got into the car and then the phone rang. When he took the call we heard the explosion. We rushed towards his car and found him in pieces in the back seat."
Minutes after the assassination, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza laid the blame at Israel's door, saying the assassination was "a cowardly crime by the Zionist Mossad". A statement by the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, hinted that the group will also hit Israeli targets abroad.
"We have let hundreds of thousands of Zionists travel and move in capitals of the world in order not to be the party which transfers the struggle. But the Zionist enemy has done so and should bear the consequences of its actions," said a statement issued in Gaza.
But Hamas in Damascus suggested that there would be no such change in tactics. "There will be a response that would be decided by the movement's leaders inside the occupied territories," said a Hamas spokesman in the Syrian capital.
Israeli authorities had vowed to hit Hamas leaders "wherever they are" after suicide bomb attacks late in August in Beersheba left 16 people dead. Mr Sharon has stepped up operations against Hamas leaders in Gaza as he prepares to go ahead with his controversial withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the area next year.
The assassination comes just days after the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that the intelligence service of an Arab state has recently passed Israel valuable information on the Hamas infrastructure in foreign countries.
The assassination will not come as a complete surprise to Western diplomats, some of whom have been predicting for months that Israel might make an attempt on the life of Hamas's leader, Khaled Mashal, in Damascus. Mr Mashal, who was the object of a botched poisoning attempt by Mossad in Amman in September 1997, was identified as the overall Hamas leader after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza in March this year.