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Israeli assassins kill hopes of peace for Palestinians

Conal Urquhart in Gaza City

Sunday August 31, 2003

The Observer

Two Palestinians were killed and others wounded yesterday in the latest Israeli assassination attack on Hamas members in the Gaza Strip.

The men died after an Apache helicopter gunship fired four missiles at a van on a road between two refugee camps in central Gaza. Initial reports said at least two bystanders were injured. Hospital officials identified the dead as Farid Mlayet, 21, and Abdullah Akel, 24, and Hamas sources said both were members of the Hamas military wing. It was the fourth Israeli attack in the 11 days since the Palestinian suicide bombing of a Jerusalem bus which killed 21 people.

Israel's open season on Hamas militants has forced the Islamic group in Gaza underground for the first time since the Palestinian Authority's 1996 crackdown on it. Over the past 10 days, Israel has killed Ismail Abu Shenab, the most moderate Hamas leader, nine activists and two bystanders; Hamas has declared its ceasefire, kept since June, over; and Israeli officials have declared all Hamas members to be assassination targets.

Hamas has decided to lie low. Last week a seven-point survival leaflet was distributed, telling Hamas 'brothers' that they are targets and should assume all telephone conversations are monitored, and that Israeli spies are all around. Vehicles should be used only in an emergency.

The death of Abu Shenab has radicalised Hamas, ironically suppressing the ideas for which he stood, and put Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas - known as Abu Mazen and recently regarded as the man to carry forward the US-backed road map - in a position described yesterday as 'clinically dead'.

Imad Falouji, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament who left Hamas in the 1990s when it refused to take part in elections, said that Israeli violence would only make Hamas stronger and more extreme. 'People have greater sympathy for them and the movement is growing all the time,' he said.

'There are two wings in Hamas. The first believes the only language the Israelis understand is the language of blood. The second was led by Abu Shenab and it believed in the possibilities of dialogue and negotiation. Now the second group is silenced and the extreme line has been vindicated by Israel's actions.'

Two weeks ago it was easy to find Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Last week the office of Mohammad al-Hindi, leader of Islamic Jihad, was closed and his mobile was turned off. Abel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader who survived an Israeli assassination attempt last month, was at his Gaza City home but said he would not be giving interviews or leaving his home. The Palestinian Authority's police are patrolling areas used by Hamas to fire rockets into Israel, and the Palestinian Monetary Authority has frozen 36 bank accounts belonging to Islamic charities linked to Hamas.

However, analysts in Gaza and Ramallah believe the main victim of the Israeli attacks and international pressure is Abbas and his policy of non-violence and negotiation. Abbas has asked the Palestinian parliament to give him a vote of confidence tomorrow, but in Gaza on Thursday hundreds protested against his decision to freeze the charities' accounts. Even his supporters say that this action affects only the poor.

Hamas has now added a new dimension to its fight. Last week Kassam rockets hit the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. The range of Hamas rockets has been extended up to eight miles.

There is little interest in restraint now in Gaza. Falouji said: 'People see the Hamas belief that Israel understands only the language of blood is true. The biggest loser is the Israeli people. Before they were safe because the Palestinians guaranteed their safety. That guarantee has gone, and now they are all wondering where the next Hamas strike will hit.'

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