by Amos Harel, Jack Khoury, Anshel Pfeffer and Avi Issacharoff
The Israel Air Force attacked a Hamas unit in the Gaza Strip early yesterday, killing three of its members, including a senior Hamas military leader. The strike was coordinated with the Shin Bet security service, and defense sources said yesterday that the Hamas unit was on its way to the Sinai, where members had planned to abduct Israelis during the upcoming Passover holiday.
The National Security Council's Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning yesterday, calling on Israelis not to enter Sinai and for those already in the Egyptian peninsula to come home.
Palestinian sources said yesterday that an Israeli aircraft fired a missile at a white Toyota traveling on the road between Dir al-Balah and Khan Yunis. The car was completely destroyed in the attack, and its three passengers were killed: Ismail Labad, known as Abu Jaffar, 33; his brother Abdalla Jaffar; and Muhammad a-Daya.
Abu Jaffar is a senior member of the Hamas military wing, and, the organization said yesterday, participated in the first intifada, throwing rocks as a child. He was targeted by Israel during Operation Cast Lead when his house was bombed, and had lost an eye when a mortar he was preparing to fire at an Israeli settlement in the Strip exploded in his hands.
There was no return fire from Gaza by the time Haaretz went to print last night, but defense officials said Hamas may still retaliate before Sunday morning. They said they do not believe the organization will go for a significant escalation at this stage, and pointed out that Hamas has been trying to carry out a "quality" attack for some time - including firing rockets from Sinai on Eilat seven months ago.
The defense sources also noted that the security situation in the Sinai Peninsula has deteriorated since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Hamas called yesterday's attack "a Zionist assassination crime" that constituted a serious escalation, and called on the American administration to cut financial and military aid to Israel. It strongly denied that its men were planning to abduct Israelis from the Sinai and said it reserves the right to respond to the Israeli attack.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief of the Hamas political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said yesterday that the German mediator's efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap in exchange for abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit have failed. Abu Marzouk said Gerhard Conrad did not manage to change Israel's position on swapping Palestinian prisoners for Shalit, and that Hamas had no intention of starting from scratch.
Abu Marzouk also accused Conrad of not making enough of an effort to reach understandings already agreed upon under the previous Israeli government.
The captive soldier's father, Noam Shalit, declined to comment on Abu Marzouk's statement. He said he does not normally comment on such reports, and that he has no reliable information from any official source on the matter.
Sources involved in the campaign for Gilad Shalit's return told Haaretz they believe this was false information aimed at pressuring the German mediator or the Israeli negotiators.
Amos Harel, Jack Khoury, Anshel Pfeffer and Avi Issacharoff
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.