Israel's targeted killings 'same as war on al-Qa'ida'

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Israel has shrugged off US criticism of its policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian militants, which it resumed this week despite consternation in the West that it will make Muslim anti-war feelings harder to contain.

High on the US list of critical places is the Gaza Strip, where tensions are running high over the war, and rose still further yesterday after an official from the military wing of Hamas, 28-year-old Iyas Ahras, was blown up in an explosion at his house in Rafah, near the Egyptian border.

Although Hamas was keen to blame Israel – which again started assassinating Hamas suspects on Sunday – the evidence that Israel was involved was far from clear.

The United States, keen to soothe Muslim anger worldwide, has been openly critical of Israel's assassinations policy, but it now faces an Israeli government armed with the argument that its strategy is no different to the war being waged by Washington and its allies against Osama bin Laden and his associates.

"We do the same thing they do and they do the same thing we do, said Zalman Shoval, one of Ariel Sharon's foreign policy advisers.

On Sunday, Israeli snipers in the West Bank shot dead a Hamas official suspected of involvement in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing that killed 21 people in June. There are strong suspicions that an Israeli death squad also assassinated a Hamas activist who died in an explosion in the West Bank city of Nablus on Monday.

The question facing Washington's diplomats is whether Israel is trying to goad the Palestinians into resuming violence, which has fallen off in the last few days, so that it does not have to adopt the prescriptions for peace drawn up by the international community, but rejected by the now-dominant Israeli right wing.

* Building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is down sharply as a result of a year of fighting. Government figures quoted yesterday by the pressure group Peace Now said there were only 832 housing starts in the first half of the year, compared to nearly 4,500 in 2000. A Peace Now spokesman, Didi Remez, said his group had surveyed contractors in April and found an "almost total drop-off of demand."

In a letter to Ron Schlicher, the US consul, the Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, condemned continuedsettlement building, saying that it "sent a message to the Palestinian people that Israel is not really interested in ending its illegal occupation."

A complete settlement freeze is a central recommendation of the international commission led by the former US senator George Mitchell.