Baltimore Sun

Militants call off Mideast truce

Ismail Abu Shanab, center, pictured with fellow senior Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyah, left, and a reporter, was killed on Aug. 21 along with two bodyguards. Their scorched bodies were pulled from the burning car.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Palestinian militant groups yesterday declared an end to a nearly 8-week-old cease-fire with Israel after an Israeli missile strike killed a leader of Hamas on a residential street.

Ismail Abu Shanab, who often served as a spokesman for Hamas, died along with his two bodyguards when an Israeli Apache helicopter fired laser-guided missiles at his car as it sped by a United Nations compound in Gaza.

The assassination of Abu Shanab came in retaliation for Hamas' suicide bombing Tuesday of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed 20 people.

Abu Shanab's death brought immediate cries from Palestinians for revenge, and an end to the cease-fire that began June 29 and was supposed to continue through next month. It had ushered in a period of relative calm and a relaxing of tensions - what now seems to have been only an intermission in three years of fighting.

Tens of thousands of people massed on Gaza's streets last night, including hundreds of masked men firing automatic rifles in the air, and warned Israelis to prepare body bags for themselves. A banner hanging from a mourner's tent in Gaza's Sheik Radwan neighborhood declared: "No more truce. There is no compromise. We will respond with full force."

A small but angry crowd pressed against the doors of the morgue at Shifa Hospital to get a glimpse of Abu Shanab's charred body, which was rendered nearly unrecognizable.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader who narrowly escaped an attempt by Israel to kill him in June, said that Abu Shanab's main goal "was to unite the Palestinians. I think that this crime of the Israelis will help our cause. With this crime, they show that our only way forward is resistance."

Leaders of Islamic Jihad also said they would no longer abide by the cease-fire. The declarations from the groups were made in speeches, interviews and leaflets distributed throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli army said its response to the Jerusalem bus bombing has just begun, and would include more assassinations and raids into Gaza and West Bank cities in operations that could last three to four weeks.

Army officers acknowledged that their actions would lead to more violence, but said they were counting on the turmoil to force the Palestinian Authority to confront the militant groups.

Last night, Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed firing mortars and rockets at army posts, Jewish settlements and a community in Israel - hitting several homes and setting at least one ablaze.

The Hamas bombing in Jerusalem coupled with the killing of Abu Shanab also imperiled an American-led peace plan known as the "road map." But U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking yesterday at the United Nations, urged Israelis and Palestinians to join forces against Palestinian militants.

"The end of the road map is a cliff that both sides will fall off," he told reporters. "The alternative is what? Just more death and destruction, let the terrorists win, let those who have no interest in a Palestinian state win, let those who have no interest but killing innocent people win? No, that is not an acceptable outcome."

The road map called for the Palestinian Authority to dismantle militant groups. Instead, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas negotiated a truce with the three main armed factions, hoping to gain enough political momentum to convince them that fighting was futile.

That truce - between the Palestinian Authority and various militant factions - was severely tested from the start by mistrust and sporadic violence. Israel accused the armed factions of using the truce as a cover for preparing for a new, more deadly round of fighting, while the Palestinian security forces made no effort to take away their guns.

The Palestinians said Israel made symbolic gestures of moving troops and checkpoints, but continued raiding cities in the West Bank, killing suspected militants and arresting dozens even as Israel released several hundred prisoners as a sign of good faith.

Fearing that Tuesday's bus bombing was a strategic turning point in the conflict, Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, convened his Cabinet in emergency session Tuesday night, declared that Hamas "broke all the rules" with its attack and ordered his police to go after the group.

Sources said that Abbas argued with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat about putting security forces under one command, making them easier to control and easier to order the crackdown. They reached a stalemate during a tense meeting that lasted until the early morning hours yesterday.

In his comments, Powell made a rare reference to Arafat, who the United States and Israel usually ignore as part of their effort to isolate him. Powell asked him to unify his police under Abbas' control "so that they can allow progress to be made on the road map and terror."

The Palestinian security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, said he was prepared to shut down Hamas mosques, schools and welfare offices, arrest the group's political and military leaders, and seize their weapons. Through a spokesman, he said the first of several sweeps was to have begun last night but the killing of Abu Shanab made it impossible to carry out.

"This attack takes away our ability to do anything," said Michael Tarazi, an influential Palestine Liberation Organization lawyer. "Anything that our police do now will make it look like we work for Israel."

"Assassinations are the best way to invite suicide attacks," Tarazai said of yesterday's attack. "Israel knows this. So you have to ask the question, why did they do what they did? The only answer is that Israel wants to back out of the political process."

Israeli officials countered that the cease-fire was an illusion. "The alerts of attacks and terror dropped perceptibly during the first month," Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, told a television interviewer. "But at this time we see an escalation and an attempt to create a balance of deterrence between us and the militant organizations."

Abu Shanab was considered close to Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and was among a handful of policy-makers for the group, founded in 1987 and committed to the destruction of Israel.

But he also was considered a pragmatist who persuaded extremists in Hamas to join the cease-fire and even talked of supporting a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel - but as an interim step toward the Jewish nation's ultimate demise.

Abu Shanab spent 10 years in Israeli jails beginning in the late 1980s, spoke fluent English and earned a master's degree in engineering at the University of Colorado. In Gaza, he taught engineering at Islamic University and was dean of the College of Applied Sciences. He is survived by a wife and eight children, ages 2 to 23.

Israeli security sources said yesterday that Abu Shanab had been more than a Hamas spokesman and was "part of the exclusive Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip responsible for directing the organization's terrorist activities and establishing policy regarding terrorist attacks." Those include Tuesday's bus bombing, they said.

The sources also described the two bodyguards killed, Haani Majid Abu al-Amrin, Mohammed Barod, as weapons dealers and experts in weapons smuggling.

Abu Shanab, 53, was killed shortly after he left his office at Islamic University. He drove his own car, which was well known in the city. The helicopter, flying so high that no witnesses saw or heard it, fired on Abu Shanab as he drove along al-Aqsa Street.

It was unclear how many of the five missiles hit the car. Witnesses describe hearing the first hit, then rushing over to the mangled car just as several more missiles crashed down. The Subaru sedan flipped over onto its roof and burst into flames, trapping the occupants.

The street was pockmarked by shrapnel. Eyad Kassam, 36, was sitting near his garage when he saw the car hit. "I rushed over to see and then three more missiles hit near me and I fell to the ground," he said. "I saw the car on fire and blowing up, and then I didn't see anything."

Kassam said he fainted and woke up in a hospital emergency room, his leg and arm injured when he fell to the ground. Palestinian doctors reported that at least 17 bystanders were injured, several of them critically.

In another part of Gaza, at the mourner's tent, workers wearing green Hamas sashes began to organize the rallies and today's funeral, expected to attract tens of thousands of people. One of Abu Shanab's sons's, Hazma, 19, sat quietly amid close friends and family and greeted well-wishers.

"Everyone in Palestine is a target," he said, noting that his father was never scared of being killed by the Israelis. "He used to say, 'I could become a martyr anytime.'"