JERUSALEM – A senior Hamas commander, his assistant and a bystander died in a fiery Israeli airstrike in Gaza City early Sunday, hours before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) was to confront his Cabinet over his plan to pull soldiers and settlers out of Gaza.
Hamas called the attack a "cowardly assassination crime" and said it killed Wael Nassar (search), 38, a top Hamas commander; his assistant, Mohammed Sarsour, 31; and an unidentified bystander. The two Hamas leaders were on the motorcycle when it exploded, witnesses said.
The Israeli military said its air force carried out the strike, aimed at "two senior Hamas (search) commanders who were responsible for many attacks against Israelis, including suicide bombings, and were planning further attacks."
Witnesses said they saw a flash in the sky before the motorcycle exploded. Outside the hospital morgue, angry Palestinians, most of them Hamas supporters, chanted "God is great." Amplified statements from local mosques mourned Nassar, one of the founders of the Hamas military wing, called Izzedine al-Qassam (search). Nassar planned many Hamas attacks against Israelis, Palestinians said.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri accused Israel of a "cowardly assassination crime," part of Israel's "bloody escalation" against the Palestinians.
Also early Sunday, Israeli tanks and bulldozers briefly entered the Rafah refugee camp (search) on the Gaza-Egypt border and flattened some partially destroyed structures, residents said. Israel ended a weeklong sweep through the camp on Monday.
The attack in Gaza City came just hours before Israel's Cabinet was to debate Sharon's "unilateral disengagment" plan at its regular weekly meeting on Sunday. Sharon's Likud Party turned the plan down in a referendum on May 2, and Sharon appeared to have no majority for the program in the Cabinet.
Preparing for what was expected to be a long, stormy meeting, Sharon holed up Saturday at his ranch in southern Israel, using the opportunity to slam his rivals in an interview with Israel Radio.
Sharon accused unnamed Cabinet ministers of "extortion" and seeking personal political achievements at the country's expense, apparently taking aim at his main adversary — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sharon will ask the 23 Cabinet ministers to debate a "phased disengagement plan" that calls for the evacuation of all of the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. The plan is almost identical to one that was vetoed in the referendum.
Attempts to find a compromise that would have won him a Cabinet majority failed. So Sharon decided that if the plan was going to bring down his government he wasn't going to water it down.
However, Sharon "doesn't want to do it as a rebellious move but rather get it passed," an adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. Since most ministers don't want to see the government collapse, it is likely constructive ideas will result from Sunday's debate, he added.
The conflict over the plan has led to sharp confrontations between longtime adversaries Sharon and Netanyahu, with anonymous confidants trading insults in the media.
Netanyahu had originally expressed support for the plan when Sharon returned from a White House meeting with President Bush with unprecedented U.S. commitments in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal.
After Sharon lost the Likud referendum, Netanyahu decided to oppose the plan in the Cabinet, leaving the prime minister one vote short of victory.
The United States and Egypt, meanwhile, keen supporters of the proposal, are waiting for Sharon to make a move. Due to the pullout plan, Bush backed Israel's desire to hold onto chunks of the West Bank under a final peace deal and prevent Palestinian refugees from settling in Israel.
Egypt has pledged to assist in training and reforming Palestinian security forces in the Gaza Strip.
On Saturday, Samara Masharwi, a senior official in Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said the first Egyptian team would arrive in Gaza on June 17 to begin "rehabilitating" the Palestinian forces. Other officials said the date could change if Sharon does not bring the plan to a vote on Sunday.
Sharon fears a watered-down plan would not have strong U.S. and Egyptian backing, key to a successful implementation, the prime minister's adviser said.
In addition, Sharon is looking to the future and a possible early election if he doesn't get Cabinet and parliament support for the pullout. Polls have shown that a majority of Israelis support the plan and want to evacuate Gaza Strip settlements.
Political analysts said Saturday that Sharon is not eager to go to an early election — partly because he would likely have to compete against Netanyahu in a Likud primary — but would prefer to reshuffle his Cabinet to include the center-left Labor Party.
Sharon's adviser said Labor had indicated it would be willing to join the coalition if the prime minister was serious about evacuating settlements.
Meanwhile, violence also flared Saturday in the West Bank. A Palestinian gunman killed an Israeli army officer in the Balata refugee camp, near the northern West Bank city of Nablus.