GAZA (Reuters) – Israel killed a top Hamas commander in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian militant group vowed on Friday to hit back hard, setting the scene for a key Israeli parliamentary vote next week to quit the occupied territory.
The assassination of master bombmaker Adnan al-Ghoul, number two in Hamas’s military wing and known as “Father of the Qassam,” a makeshift rocket frequently fired into Israel and at Jewish settlements in Gaza, dealt a major blow to the movement.
It could also help Prime Minister Ariel Sharon counter far-right opponents who say the plan he will bring to parliament on Monday to remove all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of the 120 in the West Bank would reward Palestinian attacks.
In the latest assassination of a top Hamas figure, a missile from an unmanned Israeli drone slammed into Ghoul’s car in Gaza City, late on Thursday, killing him and an aide, witnesses said.
“We will avenge the blood of hero leaders Ghoul and Abbas by attacking the depths of the Zionist entity,” a Hamas activist vowed through a loudspeaker as thousands gathered for their funeral.
The army confirmed it targeted Ghoul, 45, the “ace of hearts” in one Israeli newspaper’s deck of cards of Palestinians on Israel’s most-wanted list.
Ghoul had survived several previous assassination attempts, including a bid to kill him with a poisoned cup of coffee. He lost two sons in earlier Israeli attacks.
“Death is coming to the enemies,” said the group’s armed wing, which fired off salvoes of rockets and mortar bombs at Israeli targets in Gaza.
Hamas said one of its men was killed during a mortar bomb attack against the settlement of Neve Dekalim in the Gaza Strip. Witnesses said one of the weapons exploded on launch.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the Ghoul’s killing reflected Israeli determination “to continue the path of military solutions rather than negotiations.”
Hours later, Israel launched a missile attack in the northern Gaza Strip on the home of Amer Qarmout, a leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, an umbrella militant group, witnesses said. No one was hurt.
The group earlier said it had fired homemade Nasser-3 rockets into the Israeli town of Sderot. The Israeli army said the missile was aimed at a building used for armaments production and which was also a weapons store for militants.
Saying there is no Palestinian peace partner, Sharon has vowed to carry out a unilateral withdrawal of Gaza’s 8,000 settlers and several hundred of the 230,000 in the West Bank by the end of next year.
Palestinians believe the plan for Israel’s first evacuation of settlements since it returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982 is a ruse by Sharon to retain West Bank land.
Militants want to claim any Israeli withdrawal as a victory, but Israel is determined to smash them first and also undermine the argument of Sharon’s opponents — who say a pullout would make attacks more likely.
Polls suggest most Israelis favor giving up the hard-to-defend Gaza settlements but Sharon, once the champion of settlers on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war, faces stiff opposition, even within his own Likud party.
Political commentators predicted he would win the parliamentary vote scheduled for Tuesday, with the support of the main opposition Labour Party of Shimon Peres.