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Two missiles fire into car in Gaza City

By Ibrahim Barzak
Friday September 27, 2002

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel tried to kill the mastermind of the Hamas bombing campaign Thursday, firing two missiles into a car in crowded Gaza City. Two bodyguards died and 35 bystanders were wounded in the helicopter attack, but the fate of the Palestinian militant remained uncertain. Hamas promised revenge. 

A senior Palestinian security official said the 37-year-old Mohammed Deif escaped with moderate injuries. Israeli police sources said the Israeli military told them Deif — atop Israel’s wanted list for years — was killed. The military had no public comment. 

Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi said Deif was not even in the car. But he said the group would avenge the attack nevertheless. “We will hit Tel Aviv. We will hit everywhere.” 

In other violence, four Palestinians — including two gunmen, a civilian and a baby — and one Israeli were reported killed. Israel maintained its stranglehold on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah in defiance of Tuesday’s U.N. Security Council resolution to end the siege. 

Two helicopters appeared in the sky over Gaza just after 1:30 p.m., firing missiles that blew apart a green Mercedes sedan and sent a plume of white smoke over the Sheik Radwan neighborhood. 

“Suddenly we heard the sound of a big explosion,” said Mohammed Hajar, a hairdresser working in the area. “When I ran out, a second explosion took place.” 

Blood, body parts and shrapnel were strewn across a wide area and nearby windows were shattered. A large crowd, confused and angry, gathered as rescue workers led the wounded to ambulances. 

One man leapt on a car and shouted, “God is great.” 

Hamas sources identified the two dead men as members of Hamas, Abdel Rahim Hamdan, 27, and Issa Abu Ajra, 29. Rantisi said they were Deif’s bodyguards. 

More than a dozen children were wounded in the attack, the latest in a series of assaults the Israeli military calls “targeted killings” of Palestinians. 

The most controversial, a strike in Gaza that killed Hamas militant Salah Shehadeh, also killed nine children and five adult civilians. 

In the past two years, at least 78 wanted Palestinians and 52 bystanders have been killed in such attacks, which the Palestinians deride as a policy of assassination. Human rights groups have condemned the policy. 

“Today’s attack is another example that shows clearly that the Israeli army doesn’t care about the life of the innocent Palestinian victims,” said Samieh Mouhsen of the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights. “It constitutes a policy of lawless disregard for the most fundamental human rights, the right to life.” 

Israel says the targeted killings are its best means of preventing terror attacks, and accuses Arafat’s Palestinian Authority of doing nothing against the radical groups and even encouraging them. Palestinians argue Israel’s travel restrictions and military strikes have left their security services powerless. 

Israelis accuse Deif of having a role in dozens of suicide attacks over the past six years. He survived an Israeli airstrike earlier this year. 

Earlier strikes on top Hamas figures have led to increased violence. When Israel killed Deif’s mentor Yehiyeh Ayyash in 1996, Hamas responded with four suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis. 

An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Deif had served as head of Hamas military wing after the killing of Ayyash. He surrendered the position after the more charismatic and ideological Shehadeh was released from a Palestinian jail in mid-2000. Deif took over again three days after Shehadeh’s killing, he said. 

Israel has long pressed Palestinians to seize Deif, and accused Arafat of sheltering him. Hamas, however, often as been at odds with Arafat. 

Palestinian officials arrested and held Deif for several months until December 2000. The Palestinians said he escaped. Israeli officials said his jailers set him free. 

Late Thursday, about 3,000 Hamas supporters demonstrated near the site of the attack. Organizers said the purpose was to give thanks for Deif’s safety.