GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An Israeli aircraft fired two missiles at a car traveling in the Gaza Strip late Thursday, killing a senior Hamas commander who was among the government’s most-wanted fugitives for years — the latest in a series of Israeli assassinations that have weakened the militant group.
The man, Adnan al-Ghoul, a founder and the No. 2 figure of Hamas’ military wing, was killed along with a second unidentified occupant in the car. The airstrike dealt another heavy blow to Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, which is responsible for attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis during four years of fighting.
“It’s a new crime committed by the Zionist occupation government against one of the leaders of the Palestinian resistance,” said Musher al-Masri, a spokesman for Hamas, which is formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. “Hamas retaliation will be painful, and the Zionist enemy will regret this awful crime.”
Late Thursday, Palestinian militants fired up to 15 mortar rounds at the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim, damaging four homes, the army said. No injuries were reported.
Hamas officials said Al-Ghoul, 46, was a top bomb-maker who masterminded the development of homemade Qassam rockets and anti-tank missiles. Palestinian militants frequently launch the rockets into southern Israel, and Israel recently completed a broad offensive into Gaza aimed at stopping the attacks.
Gaza has experienced a surge in violence since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced plans this year to pull out of the volatile area. Both Israel and militants want to claim victory ahead of the withdrawal.
Sharon is planning to present his plan to the Israeli parliament for a vote of approval next week. Aides said Thursday that Sharon has locked up enough support but is deeply concerned about growing fissures within the ruling Likud Party over the plan.
A strike after evening prayers
The Israeli airstrike took place north of Gaza City as dozens of people left a nearby mosque following evening prayers. Upon news of al-Ghoul’s death, thousands of angry Hamas supporters took to the streets in several refugee camps, calling for revenge and chanting anti-Israel slogans.
The Israeli army said it targeted Ghoul, who had survived several previous assassination attempts, including a bid to poison him with a cup of coffee. He lost two sons in earlier Israeli attacks.
The army issued a statement describing al-Ghoul as a “leading Hamas figure” responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis. It said he had produced Qassam rockets, which have killed three people in recent months, masterminded at least two suicide bombings and developed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Al-Ghoul’s killing leaves the Hamas military leadership solely in the hands of Mohammed Deif, its longtime chief. Both men have long topped Israel’s wanted list and operated from hiding for years. They both escaped an airstrike in September 2003 aimed at a gathering of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
Since then, however, Israel has assassinated a number of top Hamas officials, including the group’s spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, weeks apart earlier this year.
A top Hamas leader based in Damascus, Syria, was killed in a car bombing last month. Israeli officials acknowledged involvement. Most of the Hamas’ leaders in Gaza remain in hiding.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned Thursday’s killing, which he said “reflects the determination of the Israeli government to continue the path of military solutions rather than negotiations.”
In other violence Thursday:
- An Israeli soldier was killed in an explosion on a patrol road along the border between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.
- Two Palestinians were shot and killed before dawn when soldiers spotted them crawling suspiciously close to an Israeli community located along the Gaza Strip, the army spokesman said. The militant group Islamic Jihad said the men were militants trying to carry out an attack.
Longtime leader of Hamas
Al-Ghoul joined Hamas in 1988 when the group was in its infancy and went on to help found its military wing. He became the organization’s top bomb-maker after Israel assassinated Yehiya Ayash, known as “the Engineer,” in 1996.
Al-Ghoul was a resident of the Mughrkha area south of Gaza City but lived in hiding for years and never made public appearances or spoke to the media.
In September 2003, he was holed up in a Gaza apartment with Yassin, Deif and another senior Hamas official, Ismail Hanieh, when the Israeli air force dropped a 550-pound bomb on the building. All the men escaped unharmed, but Yassin was subsequently killed in an Israeli helicopter strike earlier this year.
Hamas is secretive about its organization, but the broad structural outlines are known. The military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, plans and carries out attacks on Israelis. It is headed by Deif, who is at the top of Israel’s wanted list and has been operating from hiding for years.
Al-Ghoul’s eldest son, Bilal, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on 2001 while he was driving his father’s car, and his second son, Mohammed, was killed the following year, together with a cousin, when Israeli troops searched the family home.
He is survived by a single son and a daughter.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.