JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces staged a fiery missile attack yesterday that killed a top Palestinian fugitive who had been blamed for the deaths of three Americans in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
The slain man, Jamal abu Samhadana, had recently been named to a senior security post by the Hamas-led government, a move that angered Israel and the United States.
Three other militants from abu Samhadana's group, the Popular Resistance Committees, were killed in the explosion at one of the organization's training camps in the southern Gaza Strip.
The Hamas government denounced the strike, which was the first to target an official in its administration. Hamas took power in March after winning parliamentary elections in January.
"With this action, Israel is sending a message that all members of this government can be targeted for assassination," Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas government's Cabinet secretary, told reporters in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli military said the training camp, rather than abu Samhadana in particular, was the intended target. But an Israeli security source said the decision to proceed with the strike was made after intelligence pinpointed Abu Samhadana's presence.
Israel had tried on several occasions to kill abu Samhadana, who was in his early 40s and a member of a powerful clan in the southern town of Rafah. He was at the center of a furor that erupted in April, when Hamas appointed him as an inspector general in the Interior Ministry, saying he would oversee a newly created Hamas militia.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the rival Fatah faction, vetoed both abu Samhadana's appointment and the creation of the militia. The 3,000-member Hamas militia took to the streets anyway, sharply heightening tensions between Hamas and Fatah. Gunmen from the two sides have been staging intermittent shootouts and reprisal killings for the past month in Gaza.
Abu Samhadana never formally assumed his duties as head of the militia, in large part because he was a hunted fugitive, living in safe houses and traveling clandestinely about Gaza.
Abu Samhadana's group was made up of militants from factions including Hamas and some former members of the Palestinian security forces. It was responsible for a string of violent attacks against Israelis.
Israeli intelligence believed the group was behind an explosion targeting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Gaza in October 2003. Three American security men died in the blast, and U.S. diplomats have been forbidden to travel to Gaza since then.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.