Israeli security forces went on high alert this week for possible revenge attacks after the killing in Gaza of a Palestinian terrorist long sought by Israel.
Yehiya Ayash, a Hamas activist who topped Israel’s most-wanted list for allegedly masterminding a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis, was killed in an explosion last Friday after he picked up a booby- trapped cellular phone.
To prevent acts to retaliation, Israel imposed an indefinite closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
No group claimed responsibility for the assassination.
Israeli officials would neither confirm nor deny Israel’s involvement in Ayash’s death.
But Islamic fundamentalist groups put the blame squarely on Israel and vowed to avenge Ayash”s murder with attacks against the Jewish state.
Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat also blamed Israel for the assassination, which he called a clear violation of the Israeli-Palestinian accords.
In a speech to thousands of Palestinians Sunday at a village near the West Bank town of Hebron, Arafat referred to Ayash as a martyr who had “died for the cause.”
He also said Israel had no right to carry out operations inside Palestinian autonomous areas.
Israel “should not kill and assassinate on Palestinian land the struggler, the martyr Yehiya Ayash,” Arafat told the crowd.
Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said he was worried by the reaction of Palestinian officials to the killing, adding that it provided proof that Arafat was not interested in reconciliation with Israel, or in taking any measures against Hamas.
The killing came two weeks before Palestinian elections were scheduled to be held, and a week after the Palestinian Authority and Hamas had reached a tacit understanding that Hamas would halt terrorist attacks during the campaign period.
“I think that this came at a very delicate time,” Ziad Abu Ziad, who is running as in independent candidate in eastern Jerusalem, told Israel Radio. “It will incite people against the peace process, and against those who support the peace process.”
A number of Israeli Cabinet ministers refused to comment publicly on the killing.
One of those who did, Health Minister Ephraim Sneh, was quoted by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz saying, “I’m happy he’s no longer alive.”
Sneh added that did not think the killing would undermine the peace process with the Palestinians.
Knesset member Hagai Meirom, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the timing was right, regardless of who was responsible.
He also stressed that Ayash’s murder had not crippled the Hamas movement, adding that Ayash had left behind “a young generation that learned the fundamentals of bombmaking from him.”
In the wake of Ayash’s death, Mohammed Dif became the most-wanted Hamas activist still at large, according to Ha’aretz.
Dif was said to be responsible for the October 1994 kidnapping and murder of Israeli soldier Cpl. Nachshon Waxman, and for the murder of two other Israeli soldiers.
Ayash, 30, was known as “The Engineer” because of his expertise with explosives.
A graduate of Bir Zeit University in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Ayash was believed to have supplied the explosives used by suicide bombers who killed more than 60 Israelis, mostly civilians, and wounded more than 300 others in a series of attacks during the past two years.
Ayash was also considered highly adept at recruiting people who were willing to carry out the suicide attacks.
Born in the West Bank, Ayash went into hiding after the October 1994 suicide bombing of a bus Tel Aviv that killed 22 Israelis and wounded 42 others.
Israeli forces believed that he was hiding in the Gaza self-rule area, but Palestinian officials said they did not have any information to back this up.
Ayash successfully eluded Israeli forces, who for months attempted to locate him.
In September, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly told security officials that Ayash was an obstacle to the peace process and that the activities of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad fundamentalist movements must be stopped.
Hamas sources reportedly said Sunday that Ayash was killed in an apartment hideout located in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
The apartment was owned by Osama Hamad, 27, a Hamas activist who was reportedly Ayash’s former college roommate.
When the booby-trapped cellular phone rang last Friday afternoon, Hamad answered and handed the call to Ayash, saying that it was his father.
Hamad said the phone exploded when Ayash told the caller, “I hear you, father.”
Palestinian residents in the area reportedly said an Israeli helicopter was flying overhead – which prompted speculation that the phone was detonated from the air.
The cellular phone was reportedly given to Hamad by his uncle, Kamal, who was a suspected collaborator with Israel.
Kamal Hamad disappeared after the assassination.
The Palestinian Authority appointed a special committee to investigate the killing. At least five suspects have been detained.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of Hamas supporters called for a “quick and painful” revenge as they took part in Ayash’s funeral procession in the streets of Gaza.
In towns and villages throughout the West Bank as well as in Gaza, Palestinians staged ceremonies Saturday and began observing a three-day mourning period with a general strike.