GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – An Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a car traveling in the Gaza Strip late Thursday, killing a senior Hamas commander who topped the government’s most-wanted list for years — the latest in a series of Israeli assassinations that have weakened the militant group.
Adnan al-Ghoul, a founder and the No. 2 figure of Hamas’ military wing, was killed along with a second unidentified occupant in the car. The airstrike dealt another heavy blow to Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, which is responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis during four years of fighting.
“It’s a new crime committed by the Zionist occupation government against one of the leaders of the Palestinian resistance,” Hamas spokesman Musher al-Masri said.
Hamas officials said Al-Ghoul, 46, was a top bomb maker who masterminded the development of homemade Qassam rockets and anti-tank missiles. Palestinian militants frequently launch the rockets into southern Israel, and Israel recently completed a broad offensive into Gaza aimed at stopping the attacks.
Gaza has experienced an upsurge in violence since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news – web sites) announced plans earlier this year to pull out of the volatile area. Both Israel and militants want to claim victory ahead of the withdrawal.
Sharon is planning to present his Gaza withdrawal plan to the Israeli parliament for a vote of approval next week. Aides to the prime minister said Thursday that he has locked up enough support to win that vote, but is deeply concerned about growing fissures within the ruling Likud Party over the plan.
The Israeli airstrike took place north of Gaza City as dozens of people left a nearby mosque following evening prayers. Upon news of al-Ghoul’s death, thousands of angry Hamas supporters took to the streets in several refugee camps, calling for revenge and chanting anti-Israel slogans.
Al-Ghoul’s killing leaves the Hamas military leadership in the hands of Mohammed Deif, its longtime chief. Both men have long topped Israel’s wanted list and operated from hiding for years. They both escaped a September 2003 airstrike aimed at a gathering of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
Since then, however, Israel has assassinated a number of top Hamas officials, including the group’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, weeks apart earlier this year.
A top Hamas leader based in Damascus, Syria, was killed in a car bombing last month. Israeli officials acknowledged involvement. Most of the Hamas’ leaders in Gaza remain in hiding.
The Israeli army issued a statement describing al-Ghoul as a “leading Hamas figure” responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis. It said he had produced Qassam rockets, which have killed three people in recent months, masterminded at least two suicide bombings, and developed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned Thursday’s killing, which he said “reflects the determination of the Israeli government to continue the path of military solutions rather than negotiations.”
Sharon is planning to withdraw from Gaza, where 8,000 Jewish settlers live among 1.3 million Palestinians, next year. He says a continued Israeli presence in the crowded, impoverished Gaza Strip is unrealistic. The plan also includes a pullback from four small West Bank settlements.
While opinion polls show most Israelis support the plan, it has bitterly divided Sharon’s hardline government. Jewish settler groups, along with hard-liners in the government, accuse Sharon of caving in to Palestinian violence.
Political analyst Hanan Crystal said Sharon has the support of up to 68 legislators in the 120-member parliament. But he wants to get a larger majority to head off accusations that he is abandoning his traditional hardline supporters.
Just 22 or 23 of 40 Likud legislators plan to vote in favor of the plan, according to Crystal.
Sharon is expected to prevail with the backing of more than two dozen lawmakers from moderate opposition parties.
Aides said Sharon is uncomfortable relying on moderate secular parties. With victory likely in next week’s vote, Sharon turned his efforts Thursday to opposition religious parties and his own divided party to shore up support, aides said.
“He does not want to find himself in the situation where the only support will be from parties on the left of the political spectrum. This is not comfortable for him,” the aide said.
The aide said Sharon is using a combination of “carrots and sticks” to persuade Likud lawmakers to back him next week.
In the wrangling over the vote, Sharon and withdrawal opponents competed Thursday for the support of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the religious opposition party Shas.
Sharon hopes to persuade the rabbi, who has been cool to the Gaza plan, to instruct the party’s 11 legislators to abstain, instead of voting “no.”
Tuesday’s vote is only the first of three parliamentary votes on the plan. A victory would give him strong momentum as he pushes forward, although the government could still fall on other issues, including the budget, before the planned withdrawal begins next summer.
In other violence Thursday, an Israeli soldier was killed in an explosion on a patrol road along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
Also, two Palestinians were shot and killed before dawn when soldiers spotted them crawling suspiciously close to an Israeli community located along the Gaza Strip, the army spokesman said. The militant group Islamic Jihad said that the men were militants trying to carry out an attack.