GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel confirmed Friday that a top Hamas bombmaker survived an Israeli airstrike aimed at killing him, an operation that wounded 35 bystanders, including 15 children, and drew international criticism.
Mohammed Deif, the intended target, was wounded and quickly treated at a Gaza City hospital before being whisked into hiding, Palestinian medical officials said. The strike obliterated Deif's green Mercedes and killed two bodyguards.
Hamas, an Islamic militant group responsible for scores of suicide attacks in Israel, said it would avenge the airstrike.
Israeli Cabiney minister Matan Vilnai, a former deputy military chief of staff, confirmed Friday that Deif had survived. "He was indeed wounded, not an injury that he won't recover from," Vilnai, the science minister, told Israel Army Radio.
At first, Israeli officials were quoted as saying that they believed Deif had been killed.
Hamas leaders insisted from the outset that Deif was alive. Palestinian security officials later said Deif was moderately wounded. Two witnesses, Hani Sultan, 19, and Ramez Baroud, 29, said they helped evacuate three wounded men from two cars that were hit by missiles. They said they did not know if one of them was Deif.
The attack was the latest example of what the Israeli military calls "targeted killings," a practice the United States has criticized. At least 78 wanted Palestinians and 52 bystanders have been killed in dozens of such attacks in the past two years of fighting.
Human rights groups have condemned the killings , many of which have been carried out from the air, often in crowded Palestinian neighborhoods. Palestinians say targeted killings are nothing less than assassinations.
The most controversial occurred July 23, when an Israeli warplane dropped a one-ton bomb on the house of Hamas military leader Salah Shehadeh, killing him along with an aide and 13 civilians, including nine children.
The practice has set off an internal Israeli debate about targeting militants in civilian areas.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he deplored the strike and called on the government of Israel "to halt such actions and conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law, under which Israel has a clear responsibility to protect the lives of civilians."
The Israeli government says the targeted attacks are necessary to deter attacks on Israelis, while critics say it is unacceptable to put civilians at risk. Others say the strikes are counterproductive and trigger more terror attacks.
Samieh Mouhsen, of the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights, said the attack "is another example that shows clearly that the Israeli army doesn't care about the life of the innocent Palestinian victims."
Israeli opposition leader Yossi Sarid said that while there is a need to fight terror, "a proper country simply doesn't do these things."
Vilnai said the military could have used a bomb big enough to ensure that Deif was killed, but dozens of civilians would have died. "There should be absolutely no harming of civilians, and sometimes we'll pay a price for that," he said.
However, lawmaker Shaul Yahalom of the hawkish National Religious Party, a member of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling coalition, said a larger explosive should have been dropped to make sure that Deif was killed, despite civilian casualties. "When Israel strikes at a despicable and cruel target like that, side effects are inevitable," he told Israel Radio.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader, said the group would avenge the strike. "We will hit Tel Aviv. We will hit everywhere." Last week, Hamas carried out a suicide bombing on a Tel Aviv bus that killed six people.
On Thursday night, about 3,000 people, waving flags and shouting, marched through Gaza City to the spot of the airstrike.
"We thank God for the safety of the hero, the leader Mohammed Deif, who succeeded in misleading the occupation collaborators and the occupation intelligence," shouted one Hamas member through a loudspeaker. "Thank God for his safety."
Hamas identified the two dead men as Abdel Rahim Hamdan, 27, and Issa Abu Ajra, 29. Rantisi said they were Deif's bodyguards.
Israel accuses Deif, a secretive man known as a master of disguise, of a role in dozens of suicide attacks over the past six years. He had survived another Israeli airstrike earlier this year.
Earlier strikes on top Hamas figures have led to increased violence and reprisals. When Israel killed Deif's mentor, Yehiyeh Ayyash, in 1996, Hamas responded with four suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis. Israel says Deif masterminded the attacks.
An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Deif was the head of Hamas military wing since the killing of Ayyash, until the more charismatic and ideological Shehadeh was released from a Palestinian jail in mid-2000. Deif took over Hamas "military operations" three days after Shehadeh's killing, he said.
Israel has long pressed Palestinians to seize Deif, and accused Arafat of sheltering him. Hamas, however, has also often been at odds with Arafat, accusing him of treason in 1998.
Palestinian officials arrested and locked up Deif for several months before December 2000. The Palestinians said he escaped. Israeli officials said his jailers set him free.
In other developments, in a pre-dawn raid Friday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed an armed Hamas militant, Mohammed Yarmour, 21, in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian witnesses and hospital officials said. The army said troops shot him after he opened fire on them with a pistol as they were approaching his house.