GAZA CITY: Israeli warplanes flattened the home of a Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, yesterday in retaliation for twin suicide bombings that killed 15 Israelis a day earlier.
Zahar, 58, who was standing in the doorway, survived with minor injuries, but his eldest son 29-year-old Khaled and a bodyguard were killed.
In targeting Zahar's home, Israel signalled a further escalation in its campaign against the Islamic militant group. Israel had killed 12 Hamas members in air strikes in the past three weeks, but yesterday marked the first time it attacked a Hamas leader in his home.
Tuesday's suicide bombings – apparent reprisals for Israel's failed attempt over the weekend to kill most of the Hamas leadership in an air strike – went off five hours apart.
The first explosion killed eight soldiers at a crowded bus stop near Tel Aviv, and the second blast killed seven patrons at a popular Jerusalem coffeehouse. Dozens of bystanders were maimed and wounded.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cut short a visit to India, and was to hold security consultations immediately upon landing early today.
Two strategic decisions – whether to expel Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat or order a large-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip – are on the agenda, said a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli military said it will press ahead with its “all-out war” on Hamas.
Hamas praised the bombings but stopped short of claiming responsibility for them. The Israeli military raided the West Bank village of Rantis yesterday and arrested 20 relatives of the suspected assailants.
Villagers said the two – Ramez Abu Isleem, 24, and Ihab Abdel Kader, 20 – had disappeared last week. However, Hamas did not announce the names of the bombers.
Some 12 hours after the attack on the Jerusalem coffeehouse, Israeli warplanes bombed the home of Zahar, a senior official in Hamas, flattening the two-story structure.
Ambulance driver Rami Salameh said he evacuated Zahar.
“He had his hand behind his head and his hand was covered with blood,” Salameh said.
“When I moved him to the stretcher with the help of other people, he screamed from pain in his back, but he was talking to us, saying 'I'm okay, I'm okay.'”
Zahar went into hiding after being treated at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital.
Twenty-five people were wounded, including Zahar's wife and a daughter. In all, three women and five children were hurt.
Rescue workers were digging through the rubble to search for possible survivors.
The Israeli military said it targeted Zahar as a senior decision-maker in Hamas and one of those who directs suicide attacks.
“The leadership (in Gaza) is in close touch with Hamas command posts throughout the world, and especially the Hamas command centre in Syria,” the military said.
Israel's military has relentlessly targeted Hamas militants since the group claimed a suicide bombing last month that killed 22 people, including six children, on a Jerusalem bus.
On Tuesday, Israeli troops in Hebron killed two Hamas members – including the group's leader in the West Bank city – and a 12-year-old bystander, and blew up a seven-storey apartment building where the militants were hiding out.
The violence underscored the collapse of US-backed peace efforts and came amid political uncertainty after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned. – AP