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Israeli Commando Raid Kills Six in West Bank, Gaza Strip

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

In a commando operation and a helicopter attack, Israeli forces killed at least six Palestinians on Wednesday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pressing a campaign of hunting down and slaying suspected bombers and gunmen. A seventh Palestinian, a policeman, was killed in unclear circumstances.

All told, it was an especially deadly day and came despite fledgling efforts to renew truce talks, possibly as early as next week, between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Two Jewish settlers were also wounded when Palestinians fired on their garbage truck in the northern West Bank.

In Gaza, Israeli combat helicopters fired missiles into a two-car convoy late Wednesday afternoon, apparently targeting a senior leader of the radical Islamic Hamas movement, which has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide-bombings of Israeli Jews.

The occupants of the two cars fled during the initial barrage, witnesses said, leaving behind guns. But an 18-year-old was caught by another missile and killed as he attempted to escape.

The teen was identified as Bilal Ghoul, son of a prominent Hamas member who also worked for one of Arafat’s security services. His father, Mohammed Ghoul, was thought to have been riding in the second car and escaped.

Reports circulated that the second car also carried Mohammed Deif, top leader of Hamas’ military wing and the No. 1 suspect on Israel’s list of most-wanted terrorists. Deif, accused by Israel of masterminding a series of horrific bus bombings in 1996 as well as other attacks, was jailed by Arafat’s police in May 2000 but released by the Palestinian leader last October at the start of the current Palestinian uprising.

Residents near the site of the destroyed convoy told Palestinian journalists that they could identify Deif as he fled. However, Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar and a senior Israeli security source denied that Deif was aboard the convoy. It also seemed unlikely that a man who has so successfully eluded Israeli capture -- or execution -- would be riding through Gaza City in daylight.

However, the mere prospect created a flurry of excitement. Israeli television reported that Deif was the target, while the Israel army said only that it had attacked “terrorist cells” conducting mortar attacks on Jewish settlements.

Near the charred cars of the ill-fated convoy, crowds of Palestinians chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to Sharon.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking earlier this week to a gathering of his generals, said he believed the one-two punch of killing top guerrillas and carrying out limited incursions into Palestinian territory was the winning ticket for defeating the nearly 11-month-old Palestinian revolt.

Amos Harel, military affairs correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, covered Sharon’s meeting with the army and reported that there was agreement that targeted killings should focus on higher-level, hands-on guerrillas instead of political leaders.

“The most important aspect of the assassination policy,” Harel wrote this week, “is the elimination of the ‘engineers’ -- the bomb manufacturing experts. ... An engineer who manages to survive for more than a few months could cost Israel tens of dead in terrorist attacks.”