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Syria: Killing Of Hamas Official May Have Broad Implications, But Few Repercussions

Syria and the militant Palestinian group Hamas accuse Israel of planting the car bomb that killed Hamas official Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil in the Syrian capital, Damascus, yesterday. In Jerusalem, Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim said Syria is not immune from Israeli operations against Palestinian militants. But Boim did not confirm Israel's involvement. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the killing of Khalil raises tensions in the Middle East and would represent a broadening of Israel's field of action.

Prague, 27 September 2004 -- Israel has adopted a stated policy of targeted killings of high officials of Hamas and other Palestinian militant organizations in retaliation for suicide bombings and other militant operations inside Israel.

Israeli army commander Moshe Yaalon said earlier this month that Israel would "deal" not only with terrorist organizations but also those who support terrorism, including those who hold "terror command posts in Damascus."

The acting Israeli minister of public security, Gideon Ezra, reiterated yesterday that Israel must go wherever terrorists are in order to fight them: "I'm not very sad. The Hamas people from Syria have got the influence [over] what's going on. The Hamas is dangerous to Israel. We see what they are doing lately.... The suicide bombers, part of them are from the Hamas, and we have to fight against terror wherever it is."
Israeli officials could have ordered the assassination in part because they calculated that the repercussions would be slight.

But Syria says the attack yesterday against Hamas official Izz al-Din al-Sheikh Khalil amounts to state terrorism. And Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said after the attack that Israel will pay dearly for "exporting" the crisis beyond the Israeli-Palestinian borders: "The cowardly crime that was committed by the Zionist Mossad against a senior Hamas leader aimed to get the Zionist enemy out of their internal crisis and to export the crisis outside. Neither assassinations nor crimes will stop our resistance and jihad. Resistance will never be broken. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon is drawing the region to danger. And by committing this act [of assassination], the Israelis will pay a great price. Hamas, as always, attacks strongly, and [the Israelis] will pay."

Israel has not commented directly on whether it was involved in the assassination.

Observers say the Khalil assassination could be in retaliation for last month's killing of 16 Israeli civilians by suicide bombers in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. Hamas announced that it was responsible for the attacks.

Since 1973, Israel's army and Mossad have killed scores of militants who it said were responsible for planning or executing terrorist attacks. In that year -- and in 1979 and 1992 -- Israeli military and agents conducted what are widely believed to be assassination operations in Lebanon. Since then, however, with one exception, Israel appears to have confined such operations to Gaza and the West Bank. The exception was in 1997, when an assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Jordan failed and two Mossad agents were arrested.

There also was the Israeli air force's bombing in Syria last year of what Israel said was a training camp for Palestinian extremists. Syria protested, but did nothing significant in response.

Azizuddin al-Kaissouni is an analyst and commentator for the website IslamOnLine. He says the bombing in Syria last year -- and the failure of either Syria or the United Nations to make a meaningful response -- undoubtedly emboldened Israel.

Al-Kaissouni said he expects much the same in this case: "There were condemnations. There were protests within the [UN] Security Council, and then the situation died down after a few empty threats on the part of Syria. Realistically speaking, the Syrians have to make some sort of a statement. They have to protest. They have to condemn, etc. And, probably, there will be a number of other states -- Western or otherwise -- that will also question Israel's course of action. But realistically speaking, that will have no pragmatic effect."

In an interview with RFE/RL, a prominent Western analyst, Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence in Scotland, says that, in his view, Israeli officials could have ordered the assassination in part because they calculated that the repercussions would be slight.