Israel targets entire Hamas leadership

Army chief suggests Arafat could be assassinated
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Israel will continue striking at Hamas leaders, the country's defence minister, said today as it became clear that security chiefs have decided to try to kill the entire Hamas leadership.

Yesterday's assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of the Islamic militant group, threatens to escalate Israel-Palestinian fighting. Fearing revenge attacks, Israel beefed up security throughout the country and at missions abroad.

Hamas threatened punishing revenge attacks against Israel and also hinted that the United States could become a target for backing Israel.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said today that other Hamas leaders would be targeted. "If we will continue, in a determined way, with our strikes against Hamas and other terror groups, with the means I outlined, including action against those leaders, we will bring more security to Israeli citizens," he said.

Mr Mofaz and Israeli security chiefs met for five hours late last night and decided to step up targeted attacks, security sources said. They said officials had decided to go after the entire Hamas leadership without waiting for another attack by the militant group.

A decision on targeting top Hamas officials was first made last week by Israel's Cabinet, in response to a double suicide bombing at an Israeli seaport.

Israel's army chief suggested today that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the chief of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, would eventually be assassinated by Israel.

"I think that their responses yesterday show that they understand that it is nearing them," General Moshe Yaalon said when asked if the two men were in Israel's sights.

Mr Arafat's aides say the Palestinian leader is concerned about being targeted.

In Gaza City, thousands of mourners paid condolences in a reception area set up in a large soccer stadium. Loudspeakers broadcast calls for jihad. A number of Hamas leaders greeted mourners. Green Hamas flags fluttered throughout the stadium, and posters of Yassin were plastered on the stadium walls.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia went to Gaza today to pay his condolences to Hamas.

Sheikh Yassin's wife, Halima, greeted mourners at their modest Gaza City home. "We're counting on God and God will give us our revenge ... on the Jews I hope, and on the collaborators, and on the spies," she said, a picture of her husband pinned to her long embroidered dress. The couple had 11 children.

The Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning and stores throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip were closed.

Israeli security chiefs are closely watching to see who fills the political vacuum caused by Yassin's death. At least initially, hardliner Abdel Aziz Rantisi, has emerged as a Hamas strongman. Rantisi, a 54-year-old pediatrician who escaped an Israeli assassination attempt last June, opposes even a temporary truce with Israel.

Ismail Hanieh, a top Yassin aide, said Hamas took a blow to morale, but would continue carrying out attacks on Israel. "Sheik Yassin's death is not going to harm or affect the movement. It's going to give us encouragement to go ahead with our program to achieve our goal," he said.

In the meantime, Israel has increased security both at home and abroad. Jerusalem's usually lively streets were mostly empty last night and buses remained empty today.

Checkpoints were set up around major cities, and police were visible on city streets. Tel Aviv police commander Yossi Sedbon told Army Radio that he expects the alert level to remain high for at least a month.

A closure preventing Palestinians from entering Israel from the West Bank and Gaza remained in effect, and the army increased forces throughout the Palestinian areas, officials said.

Five Palestinians died in violence following Sheikh Yassin's killing and sporadic stone-throwing clashes in the West Bank were reported today.