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Israel Strikes Hamas, Kills 4 As Palestinians Crack Down

By James Bennet

The New York Times -- JERUSALEM

Israeli forces killed four members of Hamas, including a militant leader, with an airstrike in Gaza City on Sunday night, shortly after Palestinian security commanders in Gaza said they had given orders to suppress Hamas rocket fire into Israel.

The Israeli attack also came after Palestinian security forces said they had taken steps to block arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip, in the first such forceful action since a Hamas suicide bomber killed 21 people aboard a city bus in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Palestinians identified one of the dead as Ahmed Shtewe, 24, a member of the violent wing of Hamas whom a senior Israeli security official called the “chief operations officer” of Hamas. The Israeli official said that Shtewe had organized suicide bombings and rocket attacks, and was planning more violence.

Hamas identified the other three men killed as Wahid Hamas, Ahmad Aub Helal and Muhammad Abu Lubda, The Associated Press reported.

After killing a top Hamas leader, Ismail Abu Shanab, in Gaza on Thursday, Israel had said it would continue hunting the leaders of Hamas, the militant Islamic fundamentalist organization, as well as other military operations in the West Bank and possibly Gaza. Israeli officials rejected Sunday’s Palestinian security measures as cosmetic.

Palestinian Authority officials say the Israeli offensive is undercutting their ability to crack down on militants.

Hamas militants fired a crude rocket from northern Gaza on Sunday over the boundary fence into Israel. The rocket landed on a beach near a lifeguard station just south of the city of Ashkelon, injuring no one.

Gen. Abd Al-Razek al-Majaydah, the chief of Palestinian national security forces in Gaza, released a statement about two hours before the Israeli strike Sunday night saying he had issued orders to stop anyone from firing rockets.

While acknowledging they knew of that statement, Israeli officials dismissed it as inconsequential. “What we’re hearing is a lot of talk,” the senior Israeli security official said.

Beginning overnight Saturday, Palestinian officials said, their forces poured concrete into the mouths of five tunnels used to smuggle guns, ammunition, drugs and other contraband from Egypt, under Israeli forces, and into the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian officials held up the anti-smuggling initiative as evidence that they were beginning to move against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The senior Israeli security official called the move “a step in the right direction.”

But other Israeli authorities were more dismissive.

“The way to deal with the tunnels, which have been the main conduit for smuggling weapons, is to blow them up, and not shovel some sand at the Rafah exit point in front of a bunch of cameras,” said Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel.

He said that Israel also viewed the arrests by the Palestinian security forces as “peripheral” and said, “It’s more for show than it is a turning point in Palestinian security policy.” Palestinian officials said they were preparing to take other steps against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including monitoring bank accounts and closing some of their institutions. But they said they were waiting for mourning to end over Abu Shanab’s death.