Israel assassinates Hamas leader

GAZA CITY — Israel assassinated a Hamas leader in southern Gaza yesterday amid fears that a full-scale invasion of the Strip was back on the cards.

Rockets were also fired at a car in northern Gaza, and six Israelis were injured by Palestinian mortar fire at Israeli targets in and around the Gaza Strip. Sayed Sayam was killed by a single bullet in Khan Younis from a nearby Israeli settlement in what the Israeli army said was part of a revived assassination policy.

The army accused Sayam of being behind a number of mortar attacks against Israeli targets from the Strip. Hamas vowed immediate retaliation, and the assassination was followed by mortar fire directed at the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim that wounded two Israelis.

“Hamas will not stand handcuffed against this new crime,” Hamas Spokesman Mushir Al Masri warned Sunday after the assassination.

Later in the afternoon in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, a bystander was seriously wounded when Israeli helicopters fired rockets at a car the army suspected of carrying mortar launchers. The two men in the car escaped unharmed, according to witnesses.

The incidents are the latest in a round of violence that is threatening the five-month-old truce agreed between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel in Sharm El Sheikh in February and tensions have been significantly ratcheted up in recent days.

The Israeli army Saturday night amassed troops, tanks and armoured vehicles at the borders of the Gaza Strip vowing, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “to act without limitation to stop the strikes on Israeli communities.”

An appeal for calm by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday appears to have gone unheeded, though there has not been a repeat of the scenes on Friday when PA forces clashed with Hamas members in two incidents in northern Gaza. Two teenage bystanders were killed in that fighting, several people were wounded and a PA armoured personnel car was set ablaze in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, scene of the heaviest fighting.

Fears of inter-Palestinian fighting, however, abated Saturday, with the arrival of an Egyptian delegation to mediate factional meetings that have been ongoing since. At the time of writing, senior Hamas leaders and Egyptian officials were meeting at a hotel in Gaza City to avoid further friction.

“I think the fact that an Egyptian delegation has arrived and inter-factional talks are ongoing is a signal that no one is interested in escalation,” Ghazi Hamad, editor-in-chief of the weekly Islamist Al Resala newspaper and a close observer of Hamas, told The Jordan Times yesterday.

“I still think relations between Abu Mazen and Hamas are good. In his remarks yesterday, Abu Mazen didn’t mention Hamas by name, and the PA and Hamas can solve their problems quickly. There is the will.

“But there are root problems that need to be solved, and they won’t be solved only in talks. There is a lack of communication between Fateh and Hamas, and they do not trust and sometimes misunderstand each other. This leads to problems and can lead to clashes. Restoring confidence between the two will take time.”

On the streets of Zeitoun, a sense of normalcy had returned Sunday, but fears were still apparent.

“This is a very critical incident,” Suhail Khatif, 31, told The Jordan Times. “Everybody is worried about it, and if a civil war erupts it will be much more dangerous than anything the Israelis did to us.” Khatif, the proprietor of a coffee shop at the entrance to Zeitoun and on the curb where the scarred street still bears witness to the burning of the PA’s APC, said there could not be more than one authority and the PA should act to confiscate weapons.

“We are all sons of the same people. Fighting each other is bad for business, bad for everything. It is even bad for our image abroad. People see we are struggling for justice one minute, and then they see we are only struggling for power among ourselves.”

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