The Palestinian government’s security chief, a key player in rocket attacks on Israel, was killed late yesterday in an Israeli air strike that threatened to escalate clashes between the two sides into a far fiercer conflict.
The militantly anti-Israel Hamas government called Jamal Abu Samhadana’s assassination a direct assault on the Palestinian Authority, and vowed to continue its resistance against the Jewish state. Abu Samhadana’s Popular Resistance Committees faction vowed revenge.
The Israeli military confirmed it struck a PRC training camp in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, saying militants there were planning a large-scale attack on Israel. It would not confirm or deny that Abu Samhadana, the No. 2 man on Israel’s wanted list, had been the target.
Abu Samhadana, leader of the small PRC faction, was an explosives expert and a suspect in the fatal 2003 bombing of a US convoy in the Gaza Strip. His recent appointment as Hamas’ top enforcer infuriated Israel.
He and other militants had been about to enter the training camp in the former Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam when the four missiles struck.
Three other militants were killed and 10 were wounded in the attack, which knocked out electricity in the area. In the darkness, illuminated only by flashlights, a small pool of blood could be seen staining the ground, and people lifted pieces of flesh to bury them with Abu Samhadana.
Since Hamas was elected to power in January, it has not been directly involved in attacks against Israel, but it does back other factions’ attacks. Hamas is thought to help finance the PRC, and about 500 people belong to both of the two groups.
Over the past week, Hamas members have co-operated with the smaller faction in rocket attacks on Israel, though Israel has said Hamas leaders did not dispatch them.
The 43-year-old Abu Samhadana had been a key target for Israel, moving stealthily and switching cars and hideouts, despite his promotion to security chief by the Hamas-led government.
Palestinian factions, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ more moderate Fatah party, condemned his killing, and said it would not stop attacks on Israel, but fuel them.
“We consider this targeting today of Abu Samhadana, the overseer of the Ministry of Interior, a serious Israeli escalation and the realisation of earlier threats to target symbols of the Palestinian government,” said Khaled Abu Hilal, an Interior Ministry spokesman. “Our response will be further adherence to our positions and to the legitimacy of resistance.”
Ghazi Hamad, a government spokesman, said Israel’s targeting of a key government figure “foretells dangerous consequences and developments, and leaves the situation open to all options.”
A loudspeaker mounted on a car carrying Abu Sharif, a top PRC commander, vowed to avenge Abu Samhadana’s death.
“God willing, our retaliation shall come,” the loudspeaker blared. “It will not be by statements, but by rockets toward (the southern Israeli town of) Sderot and all the Zionist community. It will be by self-sacrificing martyrs who will blow up themselves in every corner.”
Thousands of mourners, shouting “Revenge, revenge,” marched to the morgue where Abu Samhadana lay. His body was bundled onto a stretcher, hoisted over the crowd’s shoulders, and paraded around the hospital compound before being returned to the morgue ahead of today’s funeral.
Verses from the Koran issued forth from mosque minarets.
One weeping Popular Resistance fighter drew a parallel between Abu Samhadana’s assassination and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida terror network leader in Iraq, by US forces on Wednesday.
“This is a big blow to Islam and the holy warriors,” said the fighter, who refused to identify himself. “
This morning it was Zarqawi, who led the fight against the Americans, and here, Abu Samhadana, who taught the Israelis unforgettable lessons in each battle against them. We hope that God will send us more heroes.”
Reaction to Abu Samhadana’s death swept through the Rafah refugee camp where he had lived.
Ordinarily after an Israeli assassination, gunmen and relatives take to the streets. But the death of one of the most renowned militants in the Palestinian territories brought out nearly all of the camp’s thousands of residents, including gunmen from all Palestinian factions, some firing in the air.
A neighbour, Ibrahim Atwan (aged 45) recalled that Abu Samhadana had wanted to die a “martyr’s” death.
“I feel humbled because men like him gave their lives as a price for their beliefs, and to defend us,” Atwan said. His wife, Iman, said she hoped one of her children would ”follow in his footsteps.”
Abu Samhadana graduated from a military school in then-communist East Germany in 1988. He was loyal to Yasser Arafat for many years, but was later expelled from Arafat’s group Fatah.
He formed the PRC with militants from various factions, after the latest Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000.
His rise to power in the Hamas government enraged not only Israel, but also the long-ruling Fatah party, which Hamas ousted in January elections. His appointment as Hamas’ top enforcer helped to set the stage for recent Hamas-Fatah violence that has killed 10 people and raised the spectre of all-out civil war.
The overarching conflict between the two sides now is Abbas’ plan to announce a national referendum on establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians’ Hamas rulers have refused to amend the group’s charter calling for Israel’s destruction, and have rejected the two-state solution proposed by a group of politically powerful prisoners from Hamas and Fatah.
The referendum is to be officially announced tomorrow, and likely will take place on July 31, an Abbas aide said yesterday.