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Airstrike kills Hamas leader

| Friday, Aug. 29, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Israel assassinated a local Hamas leader in bizarre fashion Thursday night, targeting him from the air as he rode on a donkey-drawn cart in the southern Gaza Strip. Four bystanders were hurt, one of them a small boy, Palestinian witnesses said.

It was the fourth Israeli airstrike in eight days aimed at Hamas leaders or operatives in Gaza. Israel has been using helicopter-fired missiles to incinerate cars in which militants were riding, and Hamas had urged its members to find other ways of getting around or stay put.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli armored vehicles staged a brief incursion into the northern Gaza Strip after Palestinian militants succeeded for the first time in hitting a large Israeli city -- although without causing injuries or damage -- with a rocket fired from inside the seaside strip.

The day's events continued an onrush of violence that began with the suicide bombing of a Jerusalem city bus Aug. 19 that killed 21 people, six of them children.

In the wake of that Hamas-caused carnage, Israel sent tanks and troops into several West Bank cities and embarked on a campaign of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders and operatives.

The Israeli military confirmed late yesterday that it had killed Hamdi Kalakh, whom it identified as a 35-year-old member of Hamas' military wing.

An army spokesman said that Kalakh had overseen the firing of rockets and mortars at Israeli targets and asserted that he was on his way to plant explosives near a Jewish settlement when he was killed.

Like other airstrikes aimed at Hamas, this one took place in a crowded street, this time in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.

"I saw him pass by on his cart, and suddenly I heard a helicopter and saw the missile hit," said onlooker Jamal Awad, who was among the injured.

Hamas members in the refugee camp of Deir Al-Balah, outside Khan Younis, confirmed Kalakh was a leader of the local branch of Izzedine al-Kassam, the group's military wing.

Kalakh was the sixth Hamas member to be killed in a rapid-fire series of Israeli raids that began Aug. 21 with the killing of a senior Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab.

All the others since targeted in the wave of airstrikes were said to be members of a Hamas cell that manufactured and fired mortars and Kassam-2 rockets like the one that struck the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon on Thursday.

The rocket crashed to the ground next to a brewery in an industrial zone on the edge of the city of 115,000 people, which lies six miles north of Gaza.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose Negev ranch lies within the rockets' apparent new range, announced that Israeli forces had been ordered to take "all necessary steps" to prevent any such attacks in the future. Military spokesmen refused to say what those measures might include.

"Today was another escalation in the terrorist activity of the Hamas movement," said Sharon, echoing comments earlier in the day by senior aides. The prime minister added that the rocket was thought to have been aimed at what he called a "strategic target" -- a power station south of Ashkelon.

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