Israeli Airstrike Kills Top Hamas Enforcer in Gaza

The Palestinian government's security chief and a key player in rocket attacks on Israel was killed Thursday in an Israeli air strike on a Palestinian militants' training camp.

The Israeli military confirmed striking the Popular Resistance Committees camp in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, saying militants there were planning a large-scale attack on Israel.

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It said "the camp was the target" when asked if Jamal Abu Samhadana, the No. 2 man on Israel's wanted list, had been the target.

Hospital officials said his body was incinerated in the strike, but his face was recognizable.

Three other militants were killed and 10 were wounded by the four missiles fired at the training camp. The attack knocked out electricity in the area, hampering rescue efforts and attempts to ascertain casualties, police said.

Abu Samhadana, leader of the small Popular Resistance Committees faction, was a key player in rocket attacks on Israel and a suspect in the fatal 2003 bombing of a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip. His recent appointment as director general of the Hamas government's Interior Ministry infuriated both Israel and Hamas' Fatah rivals, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

It also helped set the stage for recent Hamas-Fatah violence that has killed 10 people and raised the specter of all-out civil war.

Abu Samhadana, a 43-year-old explosives expert, had been a key target for Israel, moving stealthily and switching cars and hideouts, despite his promotion to security chief by the Hamas-led government.

He and other militants had been about to enter the training camp in the former Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam when the missiles struck. In the darkness, illuminated only by flashlights, a small pool of blood could be seen staining the ground, and people lifted pieces of flesh to bury them with him.

"This is a criminal assasination and Palestinians have the right to respond to this ugly crime by all means," said Khaled Abu Hilal, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "Abu Samhadana paid with his life for the freedom and dignity of his people."

Abu Sharif, one of the top commanders of the Popular Resistance Committees, vowed through loud speakers mounted on a car that carried him in Rafah to send suicide bombers, rockets and gunfire against Israel to avenge Abu Samhadana's death.

"God willing, our retaliation shall come," Abu Sharif said. "It will not be by statements, but by rockets toward (the southern Israeli town of) Sderot and all the Zionist community. It will be by self-sacrificing martyrs who will blow up themselves in every corner."

Thousands of mourners, shouting "Revenge, revenge," marched to the morgue where his body lay. His scorched body was bundled onto a stretcher, hoisted over the crowd's shoulders, and paraded around the hospital compound.

Koranic verses issued forth from mosque minarets in a sign of mourning.

Reaction to his death swept through the Rafah refugee camp where Abu Samhadana had lived. Ordinarily after an Israeli assassination, gunmen and relatives take to the streets. But the death of one of the most renowned militants in the Palestinian territories brought out nearly all of the thousands of residents of the camp, and men, women and children packed the streets, some streaming to the hospital, some standing outside their homes, or on balconies.

Dozens fired in the air and marched through the camp's streets. Gunmen from all of the Palestinian factions streamed into the streets.

A neighbor, Ibrahim Atwan, 45, called Abu Samhadana's death "a big loss for all Palestinians."

"He used to tell us as neighbors that his wish was to be killed and to receive the honor of martyrdom, and he got it. I feel humbled because men like him gave their lives as a price for their beliefs, and to defend us."

His wife, Iman, said she hoped that "one of my children will follow in his footsteps."

CountryWatch: Israel