Two bystanders were killed and some 20 wounded in the strike. The attack came less than a week after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, signed on to a U.S.-backed peace plan that emphasized a reduction in violence and other measures to work toward Palestinian statehood as early as 2005.
The strike sparked a strong rebuke from Abbas, who accused Israel of trying to undermine the plan. He denounced the move as a “criminal and terrorist Israeli attack” in a press statement, adding that such attacks “obstruct and sabotage the political process.”
Israel’s Government Press Office labeled the targeted Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, an “arch-terrorist” who was planning to sabotage efforts to establish peace between Israelis and Palestinians, according to an Associated Press report. Since the summit, “Rantisi has stepped up his murderous activities, both openly and covertly,” the statement said.
Rantisi is one of Hamas’ co-founders and most visible leaders. He told the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera that Hamas “will continue with our holy war and resistance until every last criminal Zionist is evicted from this land.”
Another Hamas leader warned the group’s revenge “would be like an earthquake,” The New York Times reported.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush was “deeply troubled” by the attack.
“The president is concerned that the strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks and does not contribute to the security of Israel,” Fleischer told reporters.
“What’s important in this new environment is for Palestinians and Israelis to find ways to work together on the path to peace,” Fleischer said. “This is going to require both the Palestinian Authority and Israel to find new ways to protect the road map so it can advance to face terrorism.”
Israeli helicopters attacked Palestinians again in Gaza later Tuesday, killing three Palestinians and wounding some 32 others.
The strike’s target was not immediately clear. Fleischer said the White House “will study this carefully to see what the facts and circumstances are.”
At about the same time, Palestinians fired six homemade rockets from northern Gaza, four of which landed in Israel, the AP quoted Israeli military sources as saying.
The road map plan requires the Palestinian Authority to rein in attacks from militant groups. However, Hamas broke off cease-fire talks with Abbas last Friday, saying the Palestinian prime minister was making too many concessions to Sharon, and warning it would continue attacks on Israelis.
Tuesday’s strike follows a Palestinian militant attack on an Israeli army post in Gaza on Sunday that killed four soldiers and wounded four others. The attack was an unusual joint effort of three largest militant groups: Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades.
Despite the spate of violence, Israel on Monday took a step toward cooperating with the road map, tearing down 10 of an estimated 60 Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank, Reuters reported.