Isolated but defiant, Israel promises to assassinate the entire Hamas leadership

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The Independent Online

The Israeli military and political establishment vowed yesterday to eliminate the entire Hamas leadership as it defended itself against domestic and international criticism over the assassination of the faction's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The Israeli military and political establishment vowed yesterday to eliminate the entire Hamas leadership as it defended itself against domestic and international criticism over the assassination of the faction's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, said other Hamas leaders would be targeted, after the helicopter missile attack which killed Sheikh Yassin in Gaza on Monday. He insisted that further attacks on Hamas and other factions, including their leaders, "will bring more security to Israeli citizens".

His remarks came as two Palestinian fighters were killed in an Israeli air strike in southern Lebanon ­ Lebanese security forces say a group of Palestinians fired three rockets into northern Israel ­ and as the army's chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, hinted that the policy of targeted assassinations could even be extended to the Palestinian Authority President, Yasser Arafat. He said the hostile response to the Yassin killing by Mr Arafat and the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah showed they understood "their time is drawing near".

Early today, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian militants who, the army said, had tried to infiltrate the Gaza Strip settlement of Morag. The two men were dressed in camouflage and flakjackets and were armed with assault rifles, the army said.

Troops also bulldozed four Palestinian farms, partially demolished two houses and destroyed a road linking two parts of the shantytown during an overnight raid, Palestinian officials said.

Reinforcing the warning, the Public Security Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, declared: "Anyone who is involved in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or anywhere else in leading a terror group knows from yesterday there is no immunity. Everyone is in our sights. And that means anyone to the last person."

But the sharpest threats were reserved for Hamas leaders who, Mr Hanegbi said, included "those who appear on television". The threat will be widely taken as applying to senior Hamas figures, such as Abdel Aziz Rantissi ­ who was named as the new Hamas chief in Gaza yesterday and has already survived one assassination attempt ­ and Mahmoud al-Zahar.

In theory, the Israeli cabinet is already committed by a decision last September to "remove" Yasser Arafat from his headquarters in Ramallah. But the decision, which it was claimed at the time could mean expelling or killing the PLO chairman, has not so far been implemented.

Yesterday's warnings were issued as Israel remained on high security alert against possible reprisals, and a vigorous media and political debate opened over the wisdom of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin and its likely consequences for Israel. An opinion poll in Yedioth Ahronot showed that 60 per cent of Israelis supported the assassination but 47 per cent were more afraid that their family could be hurt by a terror attack after the Yassin killing ­ compared with only 1 per cent who were less fearful.

The decision to kill Sheikh Yassin had its strong defenders among Israeli commentators, but others were sharply critical. Nahum Barnea, one of Yedioth Ahronot's leading columnists, suggested that there were no conclusive objections to the assassination on the grounds of morality or international law and pointed out that the US was prepared to assassinate those responsible for the killing of civilians. But he added that the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was acting less from strategy than "bitter frustration and mounting difficulty in looking voters in the eye... Sheikh Yassin bears responsibility for the death of hundreds of Jews in his life. The question that ought to trouble us now is how many Jews he will kill in his death."

Maariv reported yesterday in some detail on an alleged argument between General Ya'alon and Avi Dichter, the head of Shin Bet, the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, over the assassination. While acknowledging that the decision had been supported by military intelligence, it quoted Mr Dichter as saying that Hamas would "start with terror attacks overseas against Israelis. So they will turn into al-Qa'ida, they will be in the whole world's sights".

Confronting such criticism, General Ya'alon insisted at a seminar in Tel Aviv: "Even if in the short term, the assassination increases the motivation to carry out terror attacks, in the long run, the assassination is likely to calm the situation in the Gaza Strip and encourage moderate forces to prevent the founding of 'Hamas-land' in the Strip."

The army said last night it had foiled a potential attack when an Israeli civilian discovered an explosive device with a time fuse attached to the petrol tank of an Israeli truck at the Hawars checkpoint on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus.

Amid heightened tension in Gaza, Israeli troops opened fire after Palestinian militants fired a rocket at Israeli targets. Israeli tanks rolled into the Palestinian refugee camp of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip and bulldozers began demolishing houses by a Jewish settlement, witnesses said. Some 60 families living in the row of dilapidated structures fled as Israeli forces laid down covering fire.

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