'Targeted killings' strengthen Hamas as innocents die

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The Independent Online

Sana Al-Daour, 10, was sitting in the back seat with her father, mother and sister on the way to buy books for the new school year when the missile hit their Mercedes taxi.

She died this week from the injuries she suffered six days earlier because the taxi happened to be overtaking a car containing two Hamas militants when it was hit by the first of three missiles from an Israeli helicopter.

As his family handed out dates and coffee in his daughter's mourning tent, Jamil al-Daour, a carpenter, was quietly caustic when asked who he blamed for her death. As if the source of the missile made the question redundant, he said: "I blame my daughter for getting into the car."

Sana is far from being the only child killed since the ceasefire called on 29 June began to unravel three weeks ago. At least 22 of those hurt in the Hamas bombing on 19 August in Jerusalem, which triggered the policy of "targeted killings", were children.

But Mr Daour's grim joke touches on how effective the policy will be in undermining Hamas, and its impact on Palestinian public opinion, upon which the organisation's political strength at least partly depends. The promised revenge attacks have so far been confined to rocket attacks on settlements or Israeli territory over the Gaza border, including one on the Gush Katif settlement early yesterday.

But this may not mean Hamas is suffering long-term damage. Dr Atef Idwan, a Gaza academic whose ideas are close to Hamas, says the effect of the Israeli strikes foments rather than weakens the "competition among Palestinian youths to be a martyr before their friends".

After similar "targeted killings" of militants by Israel began in November 2000, there were no deaths in Israel during December, fuelling hopes that the militants had been discouraged. But the killings of Israelis escalated rapidly from February 2001. Amira Hass, commentator on Palestinian affairs for Ha'aretz newspaper, cited figures yesterday suggesting that 80 per cent of the Palestinians killed from the start of the intifada to the beginning of this August had not been connected to any armed factions. The Israeli policy has so far resulted in the deaths of 10 militants in six air strikes. But injuries and deaths among civilians appear to have hardened public opinion.

Outside Mohmen al-Jarah's printing shop you can still see the pile of charred car body parts from the small Mitsubishi saloon which was driven by the two Hamas militants targeted on Monday.

Mr Jarah, whose nephew Musbah, 15, suffered multiple injuries in the blast, said that after spending five years learning his trade in Israel and acquiring a respect for Jewish business people, he had been relieved at the most recent ceasefire. He had earlier had high hopes of the Oslo process and supported the two-state solution opposed by Hamas hardliners. But he said: "I cannot blame Hamas. Even without suicide bombing the Israelis will attack them. They are defending us. We don't have helicopters, we don't have tanks. Suicide bombing is the only weapon we have."

Some political activists in Gaza do not agree. Mohammed Awad, deputy director of the Students Council at the Islamic University, was elected on a Hamas ticket. But he opposed suicide bombing as "not a good tactic because it stops the Palestinian Authority [PA] being able to continue with the peace process".

According to Rashid Abu Shback, the PA's head of internal security in Gaza, the prospects of such negotiations were made more distant by the "grave mistake" Israel made in assassinating Abu Shanab two days after the Jerusalem suicide bombing, aborting the operations - including the arrest of leading militants - on which he insists the PA had decided. Israel says it waited two days in the hope that the PA would act but then had no alternative to restarting its current policy.

Mr Abu Schback also hinted at the danger of possible freelance operations against Israel. "A suicide bombing need not take a lot of work. You need a person ready to die and some explosives," he said.