updated 2/1/2004 3:21:17 PM ET 2004-02-01T20:21:17

The leaders of violent Islamic groups are targets for assassination, Israel’s defense minister said Sunday, raising the possibility of a further escalation in the three years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed.

Shaul Mofaz issued the threat in response to a declaration by the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, that the group plans an all-out effort to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

“The statements of Yassin just emphasize the need to strike the heads of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad,” Mofaz told the weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, according to an Israeli official who attended the meeting.

The statements by Mofaz and Yassin threaten to inflame an already violent confrontation that has led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people on both sides during three years of fighting.

Last week, Israel killed eight Palestinians in a shootout in Gaza City, while a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people in Jerusalem. Hamas took responsibility for the bombing, a day after a claim from the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, loosely linked to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Sunday was a Muslim holiday, and Hamas officials were not available to react to Mofaz’s comments.

Three years of violence
During more than three years of violence, Israel has carried out many pinpoint attacks apparently aimed at leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — often prompting a violent response. In September, Yassin narrowly escaped an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip.

But Israel has greatly reduced the number of targeted killings in recent months. Last month, Mofaz’s deputy, Zeev Boim, retracted comments calling for Yassin’s assassination, saying later that no decision had been made.

Hamas, which has assumed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings over the last three years, appeared to have scaled back its activities until a Hamas female suicide bomber killed four Israelis at a Gaza-Israel checkpoint Jan. 14.

Yassin encouraged kidnapping Israeli soldiers a day after Israel released 400 Palestinian prisoners as part of an exchange with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah for a businessman and the bodies of three soldiers.

Yassin said it has become extremely difficult to capture soldiers, apparently trying to explain why Hamas has failed to free the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Israelis raid Jericho
Also Sunday, Israeli troops riding jeeps and a tank raided the town of Jericho for the first time in months, killing a Palestinian militant. The fighting forced many residents to stay inside at the start of the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

The military said troops entered the town to arrest fugitives planning an attack. In the ensuing shootout, one fugitive was killed and another wounded.

There were no Israeli casualties, and the army withdrew in the afternoon. Three houses were destroyed, Palestinians said.

Jericho, isolated in the Jordan River valley, has been relatively untouched by the fighting.

The dead militant was Shadi Jaradat, an Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades member from Jenin who apparently sought refuge in Jericho. Israeli security officials said Jaradat, 23, was planning a bomb attack inside Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel said about 30 countries are supporting its position in the upcoming case on the West Bank barrier before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Israel maintains the world court is not the proper forum for the issue.

Israel says the barrier is needed to protect against suicide bombers, while the Palestinians say the structure, which dips deep into the West Bank in some parts, amounts to a seizure of their land.

U.N. seeks world-court opinion
The U.N. General Assembly, with Palestinian backing, has sent the case to the court for an advisory opinion. Israel has said the matter should be addressed through negotiations.

The United States and individual European Union states were among those supporting Israel’s argument.

However, the EU itself has not taken a position, according to officials in its headquarters city of Brussels, Belgium.

“If the court takes this on ... then there is no end to what political disputes could reach the court, and this could politicize the court,” said Alan Baker, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser.

The expansive complex of trenches, fences, walls and razor wire, has become one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both sides see the upcoming court hearing as an important battleground for determining the project’s fate.

The court will begin hearings on the barrier project Feb. 23.

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