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Israeli Copter Targets Hamas in Gaza City

December 31, 2003

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ An Israeli helicopter fired two missiles at a car carrying militants from the violent Islamic Hamas, wounding 11 people despite earlier reports that Israel and the militant group had reached an agreement to halt violence.

Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin said Israel would pay a heavy price for Tuesday’s attack.

``These massacres and crimes prove that Israel is seeking violence and not looking for peace, security and stability,″ he told Associated Press Television News.

The attack after nightfall ended a two-month hiatus that had led to the reports that Israel and Hamas had reached an informal agreement _ Hamas would halt attacks inside Israel, and the Israelis would stop targeting Hamas leaders. The agreement, if it existed, appeared in jeopardy after the air strike.

As recently as Friday, the commander of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon was quoted by an Israeli paper as saying Hamas had stopped attacks inside Israel, crediting Israeli military strikes for cowing the group. Israeli security sources said at the same time that Israel would hold off on attacks against Hamas.

However, after Tuesday’s air strike, Israel’s military issued a statement saying the targets were ``senior Hamas terrorists ... actively engaged in planning terror attacks.″

Witnesses said the two missiles missed a car in which two people were riding and the men escaped. It was not clear if the men were among the wounded. Hamas officials said one of them was a midlevel commander, Jamal Jara.

The Apache helicopters opened fire as the Fiat was traveling toward the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold, witnesses said.

``I saw a flame hit a small car and people trying to escape from the car,″ said Raouf Musalam, a pharmacy owner who witnessed the attack. ``Apaches were overhead for about two minutes while people rushed to help the wounded people.″

Dr. Jomma Saka of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital said 11 people were taken to the hospital. One was in critical condition, another suffered moderate injuries, and the rest were lightly wounded, he said.

A crowd of hundreds of angry Palestinians gathered around the heavily damaged vehicle.

During three years of fighting, Israel has frequently carried out similar airstrikes aimed at Palestinian militants.

Also Tuesday, troops also killed a Palestinian man near the city of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian hospital officials said. They said the man was killed by random gunfire. The Israeli army said soldiers fired at a group of suspicious figures who were planting explosives near the settlement of Morag. After the incident, the military said soldiers found a tripwire and roadside bomb in the area.

The U.S.-backed ``road map″ peace plan has been stalled since August because of continued violence. The peace plan requires the Palestinians to dismantle groups responsible for three years of attacks against Israelis.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia has resisted a crackdown on the militants, instead seeking a truce agreement with the militants. Despite Egyptian help, so far he has not succeeded.

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