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Israel vows to dismantle terrorist groups if Abbas won't

| Saturday, Aug. 23, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israeli troops killed a Palestinian militant and wounded two others in a shootout Friday at a West Bank hospital as Israel vowed to hunt down and kill militant leaders unless Palestinian authorities rein in the armed groups.

In the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of Hamas supporters buried a militant leader killed in an Israeli missile strike Thursday and vowed revenge. The group's defiant leaders said they did not fear death and a new generation was ready to take their places.

The decision to kill leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad was made in a meeting of Israel's security Cabinet earlier this week, in response to a Hamas suicide bombing that killed 20 people, security officials said. "As far as we are concerned, anyone who is in the Hamas leadership is a fair target," one official said on condition of anonymity.

At the Cabinet meeting, participants drew a parallel to the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes seized by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a security source said. At the time, Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered Israeli agents to track down and kill suspects in the kidnapping; and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon appears to have approved a similarly tough line.

In the past three years of fighting, Israel has killed dozens of Palestinian terror suspects in targeted operations, focusing on members of the underground military wings, rather than political leaders such as Ismail Abu Shanab, the U.S.-educated engineer killed Thursday. Palestinian militants routinely avenge the assassinations with suicide bombings.

Now, Israeli leaders say they have waited too long for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to move against the militants, a key stipulation of the "road map" peace plan adopted in June.

Yesterday, Israeli soldiers spotted three wanted Palestinians hiding on the roof of a hospital in Nablus and opened fire. Khaled Namrouti, 26, a follower of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, an armed group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, was killed, militiamen said. The other two fighters were wounded.

The Israeli military said Namrouti was involved in an Aug. 12 suicide bombing that killed an Israeli man in a supermarket in central Israel, a charge confirmed by Al Aqsa members.

Meanwhile, Israeli tanks were reported massing near Gaza, where the bodies of Abu Shanab and his two bodyguards were buried after being carried through streets echoing with shouts for vengeance.

Earlier, Hamas activists launched homemade rockets and mortars into Israel and Jewish settlements in Gaza. Three houses were damaged but no injuries were reported. Israeli soldiers set up roadblocks along Gaza's main north-south highway, leaving hundreds of motorists stranded.

Israeli officials said a sustained military onslaught in the Palestinian areas could still be avoided if Abbas, who has yet to respond to the latest escalation, moves decisively to disarm and jail militants.

"Israel hasn't closed the door on the road map," spokesman Dore Gold said. "But there are really two possibilities: Either the Palestinian Authority will begin to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure -- or Israel will."

Palestinian legislator Ziad Abu Zayyad said the renewed violence threatens to topple the already weak prime minister who was appointed in April under pressure from U.S. and Israeli leaders searching for an alternative to Arafat.

Abbas, largely failing to win his own people's support because talks with Israel did not produce the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, appeared to be losing support among Israelis as well.

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