Palestinian leaders on hit list says minister

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The Independent Online

The heads of violent Islamic groups are targets for assassination, Israel's Defence Minister said yesterday, raising the possibility of further escalation in Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Shaul Mofaz made the threat in response to a declaration by the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, that Hamas is making an all-out effort to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

"The statements of Yassin just emphasise the need to strike the heads of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad," he told the weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, according to an Israeli official who attended the meeting.

The statements by Mr Mofaz and Mr Yassin threaten to inflame an already tense situation. Israel killed eight Palestinians in a shootout in Gaza City last week, while a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people in Jerusalem. Hamas took responsibility, a day after a claim from the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, loosely linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Yesterday was a Muslim holiday, and Hamas officials were not available to react to Mr Mofaz's comments.

During more than three years of violence, Israel has carried out many pinpoint attacks aimed at leaders from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups.