JERUSALEM (Sep. 13)
Israel is bracing for terror attacks after its troops killed two leading members of Hamas.
Threats to retaliate for the Sept. 10 killings of brothers Imad and Adel Awadallah have been taken seriously by Israeli officials, who beefed up security at public sites across the country.
Israel also imposed an indefinite closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip – - its first in more than a year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that “there would be a harsh Israeli response” if Hamas carries out any attacks.
“Israel will not tolerate any attack against its citizens and will take swift action against the organizations of murderers,” he said.
The killings came as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who arrived in the region last week, continued to prod Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach an agreement that would advance their long-deadlocked negotiations.
Palestinian officials said Israel’s killing of the Awadallah brothers was aimed at scuttling the peace process.
Netanyahu spokesman David Bar-Illan countered that Israel pursues suspected terrorists at all times, regardless of the possible repercussions.
The killings sparked several days of confrontations in the West Bank between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators calling for revenge.
The worst clashes were reported in El Bireh, the Awadallahs’ home town, where thousands of protesters marching Saturday from nearby Ramallah threw stones and bottles at Israeli soldiers, who responded with rubber bullets.
Clashes also took place over the weekend in Hebron, Nablus and Bethlehem. Dozens of Palestinians were reported injured.
A day after the Awadallahs were killed in a shootout with Israeli troops near Hebron, Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin called for retaliation.
“We will not forget the blood of our martyrs,” Yassin said.
Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, also said last Friday, “Israel will pay a high price for this crime,” adding that Hamas would retaliate with suicide bombings similar to those carried out after its chief bomb-maker, Yehiya Ayash, was assassinated in January 1996.
Known as “The Engineer” because of his expertise with explosives, Ayash was killed in Gaza by a booby-trapped cellular phone in an operation that Hamas attributed to Israel. Israeli authorities denied any involvement.
In February and March 1996, Israel was left reeling by a series of suicide attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ashkelon that claimed 59 innocent lives and wounded some 220 others.
Last Friday, some 300 Hamas supporters participated in a rally where leaflets were distributed promising similar retaliation.
A day earlier, Israeli soldiers stormed a one-room house near Hebron, killing the Awadallahs, who were senior members of Izz a-Din al-Kassam, Hamas’ military wing.
Troops found a weapons cache, including an Uzi submachine gun, grenades, two pistols and three wigs. A large banner reading “Izz a-Din al-Kassam” covered one wall.
Army officials said the brothers apparently had planned to kidnap Israelis or carry out a drive-by shooting.
The deaths of the two, and the subsequent threats of reprisals, have prompted some debate in Israel about the value of the operation, given the cost it may have in terms of Israeli blood.
Israeli officials countered that the operation prevented a terror attack. By killing two top Hamas militants, they added, Israel has also seriously crippled the militants’ ability to plan and carry out additional attacks.
Israel believes that Adel Awadallah, commander of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank, masterminded several suicide bombings. He topped Israel’s most- wanted list.
Imad Awadallah escaped last month from a Palestinian jail. He had been held on suspicion of involvement in the killing last March of another top Hamas member, Mohiyedine Sharif.
Hamas blamed Israel for Sharif’s death, a charge promptly denied by Israeli officials. The Palestinian Authority said both brothers were responsible for that slaying.
Meanwhile, there were no indications that Ross, who is making his first visit to the region since May, is succeeding at breaking the impasse in Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.
Netanyahu said the talks with Ross are “not centering on the Israeli side of the equation, but on the need of the Palestinians to honor their commitments” regarding security issues.
One of the main sticking points is Israel’s demand to renegotiate an understanding on security cooperation worked out in December by Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials.
The understanding calls in part for a Palestinian crackdown on Hamas. Netanyahu has rejected the initial understanding as insufficient.
Meanwhile, some 50,000 Israelis gathered in the Tel Aviv square where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated nearly four years ago to demand that Netanyahu resign in order to save the peace process.
The Saturday night rally — held on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the historic handshake between Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn — was held under the slogan, “Netanyahu Go Home.”