Published August 28, 2005
| Associated Press
JERUSALEM – Hamas (search) terrorists released a videotape Saturday purportedly showing a bombmaker believed to top Israel's most-wanted list celebrating the Gaza Strip (search) pullout as a victory for armed resistance.
Senior Hamas commander Mohammed Deif (search), who masterminded the deaths of dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings, also urged the destruction of the Jewish state. It was the latest call for continued violence by Hamas officials as the group refocuses its armed struggle on the West Bank, where most of Israel's 246,000 settlers live.
"You are leaving Gaza today in shame," Deif said in comments directed toward Israel, which finished evacuating the last of its 21 Gaza settlements Monday. "Today you are leaving hell. But we promise you that tomorrow all Palestine will be hell for you, God willing."
In the tape, Deif praised the armed struggle against Israel (search). Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis since violence resumed in 2000.
"We did not achieve the liberation of the Gaza Strip without this holy war and this steadfastness," he said, adding that attacks should continue until Israel is eradicated.
Israel's obliteration is Hamas' ultimate goal.
On Sunday, a suicide attacker blew himself up next to a bus in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, wounding at least 10 people, officials said. Witnesses said the bomber was stopped by a security guard before he could board the bus.
The bombing was the first since Israel began its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip earlier in the month. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Deif, known for operating in the shadows, has eluded Israeli security forces for more than a decade, surviving at least two assassination attempts, including a 2002 missile attack in which he lost an eye.
There was no way to positively identify the figure on the videotape as Deif, because his face was in silhouette. He has been in hiding since 1992 and the only known photos of him were taken in the 1980s.
But the high quality of the video, which was stamped with the logo of the Hamas military wing, as well as the similarity of the voice to previous recordings indicated the tape was authentic.
Hamas would not say when the tape was made. But it had boasted for nearly two weeks that Deif would make a public statement, and militants delivered the tape to The Associated Press offices in Gaza City. The group also posted a transcript of his comments on its Web site.
Gideon Meir, an Israeli Foreign Ministry senior official, said Deif's comments threatened to sour the climate of good will that the Gaza pullout created.
"The disengagement opened a prospect of hope for the Palestinian people and Mohammed Deif is trying to spoil the show," Meir said. "His declaration proves again why the Palestinian Authority must fulfill its duty and fight the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades."
Separately, President Bush also called on the Palestinians to clamp down on militants after the Gaza pullout.
"The Palestinians must show the world that they will fight terrorism and govern in a peaceful way," Bush said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
Tawfiq Abu Khoussa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Interior Ministry, which oversees security in Palestinian-controlled areas, said Hamas remains committed to a cease-fire Israel and the Palestinians declared in February.
"It wasn't secret that a Hamas military wing in Gaza exists, and Mohammed Deif is still alive," he said. "All Palestinian factions are committed to the truce, including Hamas, and we see nothing new in Hamas' position toward the truce."
Hamas has scaled back its attacks since the truce declaration, but Israel says the group is using the lull to rearm. Israel has said any resumption of peace talks would depend on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' disarming Hamas and other militant groups.
Deif's comments on continuing the armed struggle echoed those made by Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar shortly after the Gaza pullout began. Zahar credited the resistance with driving Israel out of Gaza and said the armed struggle now must move to the West Bank.
Although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has hinted he would be willing to dismantle small, isolated Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he has made it clear that he sees the Gaza pullout as solidifying Israel's grip on major West Bank settlement blocs, where most Jewish settlers live.
With Palestinian parliamentary elections nearing, the Deif videotape also was Hamas' latest salvo in a power struggle between militants and the Palestinian government over who should receive credit for the Gaza withdrawal.
Hamas claims that years of suicide bombings and rocket attacks drove the Israelis out. Abbas, a vocal critic of violence who aspires to renewing peace talks with Israel, has tried to shore up his standing with promises he can improve life in Gaza after the withdrawal.
In an open challenge to Abbas, Deif rejected calls to disarm, though he said differences between Palestinian groups should be resolved through peaceful dialogue.
"We warn against touching these weapons, and want to keep them as an effective element to liberate the rest of our homeland," he said. "We want to use dialogue to solve any differences in order to protect our Palestinian blood and our national achievement."