(AP) GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel killed a senior Hamas political leader in a missile strike Thursday, retaliating for a suicide bombing of a bus that killed 20 people, including six children. Hamas vowed revenge and, along with Islamic Jihad, formally called off a truce declared eight weeks ago.
Also, Israeli troops raided the West Bank towns of Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem in search of militants. In the West Bank city Hebron, troops blew up the home of the Jerusalem bus bomber, a routine punishment intended as deterrent.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned that the assassination of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab would make it harder to crack down on militant groups, and a Palestinian official said the campaign was on hold.
Under pressure from Washington and Israel, the Palestinian leadership had decided on a clampdown just hours before his death — a move Washington insisted must still go ahead. The latest escalation places the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan in serious jeopardy.
“The end of the road map is a cliff that both sides will fall off of,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
Abu Shanab, who is in his early 50s, was riding with two bodyguards in his white station wagon Thursday in Gaza City when five missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter hit the vehicle. The car burst into flames and the bodies were pulled from the wreckage. Fifteen bystanders were hurt.
Dozens of Hamas supporters at the scene dunked their fists in blood, raised their hands and vowed revenge, chanting “God is great.”
Israel has routinely targeted members of Hamas’ military wing but rarely gone after the group’s political leaders. Abu Shanab, a U.S.-educated professor of engineering, was the third member of Hamas’ political wing to be killed in the past two years.
Abu Shanab was widely regarded as a moderate in the group, and served as a liaison with Abbas during the prime minister’s efforts to persuade Hamas to halt attacks.
Israel says the distinction between political and military leaders is insignificant, because both are involved in planning attacks.
“There’s no question that there is a direct link between the heads of Hamas and the terrorists on the ground,” said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Gideon Meir.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that if the Palestinian Authority “does not take all the necessary steps in the war against terror, real and substantial steps, it will not be possible to advance on the diplomatic track.”
Hamas and a smaller militant group, Islamic Jihad, formally called off a three-month truce they declared June 29.
“We consider ourselves no longer bound by this cease-fire,” said a Hamas leader, Ismail Hanieh, after identifying Abu Shanab’s decapitated body at a Gaza City morgue.
Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin vowed revenge.
“This crosses all red lines,” Yassin said of the missile strike.
Addressing the Israelis, he said: “You will pay the price for these crimes.”
The truce resulted from negotiations between the militant groups and Abbas, who wanted to avoid a violent confrontation with them.
Israel had no role in the cease-fire talks and was suspicious of the militants’ motives from the start, saying it feared a ruse allowing Hamas and Islamic Jihad to recover from Israeli military strikes.
However, Israel significantly scaled back military operations in response, limiting arrest raids and suspending targeted killings of wanted men.
Several weeks into the truce, though, Hamas changed the terms, saying it would respond violently to any Israeli killings of activists but then return to observing the cease-fire.
Hamas carried out two suicide bombings under the umbrella of the cease-fire, including Tuesday’s Jerusalem bus attack that killed 20 people, including five Americans, and wounded more than 100. It was the deadliest attack since the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan was launched three months ago.
The Israeli security Cabinet decided Wednesday to renew the practice of targeted killings.
Abbas warned that Thursday’s missile strike would hamper the planned crackdown, saying, “This for sure will affect the whole process and the decision taken by the Palestinian Authority.”
In New York, Powell called for international pressure to end Palestinian attacks, and urged Yasser Arafat to give Abbas more control of Palestinian security forces.
“Those who are determined to blow up the road map must not be allowed to succeed,” Powell said at the United Nations, where he met with Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
After the Jerusalem bombing, Abbas ordered the arrests of those directly involved and asked his Cabinet for proposals on a wider clampdown. Those ideas included arrests, a gag order on Hamas and Islamic Jihad spokesmen and the freezing of assets of militant groups.
Ultimately, Abbas and Arafat agreed on a joint statement which said the Palestinian Authority would enforce the rule of law, take control of illegal weapons and end “military displays” by the militants, a reference to marches led by gunmen.
The Palestinian leadership statement did not refer to arrests.
However, Palestinian commanders “had lists of names, places to raid, of institutions to shut down,” said Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan. “Now this has all been put on hold because the whole thing has changed after the stupid assassination.”
He said the raids would have begun Thursday night, but declined to say whether Israeli authorities were informed.
The Israelis moved back into Palestinian areas after the bus bombing. Since the spring of 2002, when Israel reoccupied most of the West Bank, troops have been moving in and out of Palestinian towns repeatedly to arrested wanted men.
The biggest operation was in the old city of Nablus, a militant stronghold where troops were looking for Hamas militants and Fatah renegades responsible for two bombings that killed two Israelis earlier this month.
Troops arrested 14 Palestinians, including a Hamas member caught with a large quantity of explosives, the army and witnesses said.
In Tulkarem, Israeli undercover troops chasing two Fatah gunmen killed a 16-year-old bystander and wounding four other people, all under the age of 20, Palestinian security officials said. The Israeli military said there was a gunbattle.