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In Mideast, each side vows to kill the other

The prospect of total war eclipses hopes for peace. Israel kills a militant and six others; Hamas threatens "an earthquake."

By Times Wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2003

JERUSALEM - Hopes for peace in the Mideast faded Thursday as both Israel and the militant group Hamas moved toward all-out war, promising to annihilate each other.

Israeli helicopters blasted a Palestinian car with missiles in Gaza City, killing seven people, including the Hamas leader who was the target, his wife and his 3-year-old daughter. And the Israeli government promised Thursday to "completely wipe out" the Hamas militant group.

In turn, Hamas said it was ordering "all military cells to act immediately and act like an earthquake to blow up the Zionist entity (many Arabs' term for Israel) and tear it to pieces."

Hamas said the violence will worsen, and it called on foreigners to leave Israel.

"The Jerusalem attack is the beginning of a new series of revenge attacks," the group said in a statement. "We call on international citizens to leave the Zionist entity immediately to preserve their lives."

After nightfall Thursday, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian Islamic Jihad activists who drew guns on soldiers who came to arrest them in the West Bank town of Jenin, the military said. Witnesses said special forces entered the town and opened fire on the two. And an Israeli settler in the West Bank was shot and killed when he apparently entered a nearby Palestinian village to buy a bag of charcoal.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas insists he cannot use force against the militants, who have rebuffed his truce offers. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon says he will not wait for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to negotiate a deal with them.

"If I need to choose between the war on terror and supporting Abu Mazen, I will choose the first option," Sharon told his Cabinet. He ridiculed Palestinian leaders as "crybabies" for saying they can't crack down on Hamas.

The increasingly deadly confrontation - with 39 killed and more than 130 wounded on both sides in two days - left little hope President Bush's Mideast peace initiative, launched just a week ago, will survive.

U.S. officials seemed to acknowledge that, at best, the violence by both sides had stalled the road map peace plan for several weeks.

Ambassador John Wolf, the new U.S. Mideast peace monitor, is scheduled to arrive Sunday in hopes of renewing peace talks.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that he would meet on June 22 in Jordan with fellow members of the "quartet" of road map supporters: the United States, Britain, Russia and the European Union.

Powell telephoned Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on Thursday to urge Israel to end to the violence. But according to Shalom's office, Powell stopped well short of demanding an end to the targeted assassination attempts on Hamas leaders.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put the blame for this week's setbacks to the peace plan on Hamas, which staged an attack Sunday in coordination with two other militant groups that killed four Israeli soldiers and started the tit-for-tat violence.

"The issue is not Israeli. The issue is not the Palestinian Authority. The issue is terrorists who are killing in an attempt to stop a hopeful process from moving forward," Fleischer said. Members of Hamas are the "enemies of peace," he added.

The United States on Thursday also pressed Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which help fund Hamas, to help rein in the militant group. Leaders there reportedly said they could do nothing until the United States takes a firm stand against what they called Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

The Israeli attack came as Israelis and Palestinians were still burying their dead from Wednesday's carnage. A Palestinian suicide bomber struck a bus on one of Jerusalem's main commercial arteries, killing 16 civilians. A 17th victim died of wounds Thursday. In Gaza, two Israeli helicopter strikes directed at Hamas militants killed 10 Palestinians Wednesday.

In Gaza on Thursday, the Israeli helicopters struck in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood in northern Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold, and the target was Yasser Taha, described by Israel as a senior militant.

Four helicopters fired at least six missiles at his white Opel, engulfing it in flames and leaving it a blackened skeleton. The three people in the car - Taha, his wife and his daughter - were killed, along with four people on the street, according to witnesses and officials at Shifa Hospital. About 30 people were wounded, the hospital said.

As a frenzied crowd surrounded the site and went through the wreckage, young men pulled out a toddler's bottle, a pacifier and small shoes and waved them at TV cameras.

As the burned car was removed, a man on a mosque loudspeaker declared: "This is a result of the road map. We will cut off the hand of anyone who tries to stop the resistance."

The Israeli army said in a statement Thursday that it did not know Taha's wife and child were in the car.

The bloodshed has been some of the worst in months and has imperiled the Middle East peace plan formally launched just last week.

For a few days, Israeli and Palestinian leaders toned down their language and spoke with hope about how to begin carrying out the peace plan, known as the road map. On Thursday, they were again trading bitter recriminations, with each attack increasing the likelihood that more will follow.

Israeli radio said the army had been ordered to "completely wipe out" the Hamas movement after the bus bombing in Jerusalem. The radio said the order was given after the Israeli defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, declared every Hamas militant a target, "from the lowliest member to Sheik Ahmed Yassin," the group's founder and spiritual guide.

Israel says it is moving against Hamas because Abbas has proved unable or unwilling to rein in militants since he assumed office six weeks ago.

Sharon said at a Cabinet meeting that Abbas was "a chick that hasn't grown its feathers yet," said a Cabinet official who briefed reporters. "We have to help him fight terror until his feathers grow," Sharon was quoted as saying.

Avi Dichter, head of the Shin Bet security service, said the Palestinians still have 15,000 security personnel, mostly in Gaza and under the control of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, Israeli radio reported.

Dichter said this number was sufficient for the Palestinians to keep areas calm, and Israel should not accept the Palestinian position that they were unprepared to act. He said Arafat had not relinquished control of the security forces to Abbas and his government.

But Palestinians said the Israeli actions had undercut Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, and had made it impossible for him to resume cease-fire talks with Palestinian militants.

Israel TV reported Thursday night that leaders in Jordan are beginning to fear that Israeli attacks against Palestinians could incite riots and unrest in the country that's arguably America's most important ally in the peace plan. Jordan had promised to return its ambassador to Israel and normalize diplomatic relations after last week's peace summit in Aqaba, but Jordanian leaders say they've postponed those plans until Israel gets serious about the peace process.

"Bush, too, cannot compel Hamas to stop terror," Israeli commentator Sever Plotzker wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "And the all-powerful Bush cannot compel Sharon to stop the assassinations (of Palestinian militants). The cause and effect, the effect and cause, it's all jumbled. Who remembers who started?"

- Information from the New York Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and Associated Press was used in this report.

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