JERUSALEM - Israeli helicopters fired missiles into a Mercedes sedan that was stuck in traffic in a crowded Gaza neighborhood yesterday in an attempt to kill the commander and top bomb maker of the armed wing of the militant group Hamas.
At least two men were killed and 27 injured by the missiles, but reports conflicted about the fate of the prime target, Mohammed Deif, who has eluded previous assassination attempts and tops Israel's most-wanted list.
The two men known to have been killed were said to be members of Hamas - Abdel Rahim Hamdan, 27, and Issa Abu Ajra, 29.
The remains were so mangled, Palestinian doctors said, that it was not immediately clear whether there was a third fatality.
Hamas leaders first said Deif was not in the car when the missiles struck, then later said he had been inside, had been injured and is in hiding.
The Israeli army, which confirmed that Deif was the target, reported that he had been killed. His cellular phone was found on the street outside the car.
Either way, the strike promised to increase tension between Israelis and Palestinians, which was high because of Israel's demolition of parts of Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah.
Ambassadors from several countries, including the United States and Britain, told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres yesterday that the siege and destruction of Arafat's compound have complicated efforts to end the conflict and create pressure for Palestinian reforms.
European and Arab leaders have also urged the Bush administration to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before taking any military action against Iraq. Israel's siege of Arafat has diverted attention from American efforts to build support for an invasion of Iraq.
Yesterday's targeting of Deif threatened to usher in a new round of violence.
After the missile attack, thousands of Palestinians swarmed the streets and clamored to stand atop the car's twisted and blackened metal frame. They pumped their fists and vowed revenge.
'We are determined'
"Hamas will escalate martyrdom operations inside Tel Aviv and Jaffa and Haifa and everywhere," the group's leader and founder, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, told reporters outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza. "We are determined to wipe out Zionist terrorism."
In an interview published yesterday in The Jerusalem Post, before the missile strike, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Palestinian groups were preparing to escalate attacks in the belief that Israel would not respond to avoid upsetting the United States.
For two years Israeli army commanders have sought to arrest or kill Deif, who survived a missile strike on a convoy of cars this summer. He is considered the mastermind behind a series of suicide bombings in 1996 aboard buses in Jerusalem.
Promotion and revenge
Those attacks were carried out to avenge Israel's assassination of Deif's mentor, bomb maker Yehiya Ayash, known as "the Engineer," who was killed in 1996 when a booby-trapped mobile phone exploded.
Then-President Bill Clinton demanded that Palestinian police arrest Deif. He was jailed but released in September 2000.
Deif was promoted to replace the previous head of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh, who was killed along with 14 bystanders, most of them children, when an Israeli warplane dropped a 1-ton bomb on a house in Gaza in July.
That strike prompted a wave of suicide bombings that killed nine passengers on a bus in northern Israel and seven people, including five Americans, at a cafeteria at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
Hamas said last week's bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv, which killed six, also was in retribution for Shehadeh's death.
Besides hurting U.S. interests in the region, the latest violence has delayed reforms within the Palestinian government. Palestinian moderates who say they were close to appointing a prime minister to take over much of Arafat's power complain that Sharon made Arafat strong again by putting him under siege.
Yesterday, Arafat was supposed to have presented a revised Cabinet to the Palestinian Legislative Council. The council had forced the ministers to resign over the slow pace of democratic reform.
"The siege on Arafat's compound has deleted our attempt to change," Abdul Jawad Saleh, a council member from Ramallah and a vocal critic of Arafat's rule, said in an interview yesterday. Saleh has pushed for an end to the armed struggle and has tried to persuade groups such as Hamas to stop their bombing campaign.
"After what happened today in Gaza, that is impossible," he said. "You can't talk about reforms when your people are being killed and your leader is under siege. I'm sure now that Sharon doesn't want any peace or quiet. He is not giving the Palestinians a chance."
Arrests and violence
Israeli officials counter that the violence has not stopped. They said security forces arrested 76 suspected Palestinian militants in the past two weeks, three of them described as suicide bombers ready to attack.
On Tuesday, Jerusalem police arrested a Palestinian who they said was on his way to carry out a suicide bombing.
Yesterday, police discovered a car bomb in northern Israel, and the army shot to death an armed Palestinian who they said was trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip.
At least four other Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops in other actions yesterday, including a 14-month-old girl who Palestinian doctors said died after inhaling tear gas fired at demonstrators in Hebron. An Israeli soldier died in a gunbattle in Tulkarm, along with a local Hamas commander.
Still, Israeli critics have asked why Sharon targeted Arafat after last week's bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Although Sharon has made it a policy to blame Arafat for every attack, many Israelis and Palestinians believe the Palestinian leader is no longer in control of events and is too weak to enforce a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, Hamas leaders have been virtually untouched in Gaza. Sharon said this week that could change with one more militant attack. He said a full-scale invasion was possible. He also threatened to arrest and exile Hamas political leaders, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the group's spiritual leader.