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Israel Continues Strikes in Gaza; Hamas Militant Killed in Damascus - 2004-09-26

The Palestinian militant group Hamas has threatened revenge for the killing of a Hamas operative in Damascus. Hamas accuses Israel of the assassination. Israel has made no official comment. Israeli forces have stepped up security operations against Hamas in Gaza, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepares to withdraw Jewish settlements next year.

Prime Minister Sharon told his Cabinet he is intensifying the campaign against Hamas and other militants in the Gaza Strip. The military operations are expected to increase before Mr. Sharon's planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the area next year.

Within hours of the meeting, Hamas leader Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil was killed in a car bombing in Damascus. A spokesman for the group blames Israel for the assassination and vows revenge. The mid-level Hamas militant had been expelled from Gaza in 1993.

Earlier this year, Israeli forces killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his top aide in Gaza. Israeli officials have said they do not rule out attacking Hamas leaders outside the Palestinian territories.

The news of the killing follows reports that Syria is closing offices of Palestinian organizations in its territory. A leading Arabic daily, Al Hayat, reports Hamas and other Palestinian militants based in Damascus have been seeking to relocate elsewhere in the region.

Syria's accommodation of Palestinian militants has been a sore point in its relations with Washington, which considers them terrorist organizations.

Suicide bombings carried out by Hamas inside Israel during the past four years have killed more than 450 Israelis. In late August, Hamas claimed responsibility for a deadly twin bombing in the southern Israeli city of Beersheva.

Israeli forces have focused on Hamas operatives in Gaza, firing missiles at suspected bomb factories, assassinating Hamas leaders and bulldozing Palestinian homes located near Jewish settlements being targeted by Hamas.

Early Sunday, Israeli helicopters fired a missile at a metal workshop in Gaza suspected of producing mortar bombs. Saturday, a mortar launched at a Jewish settlement in Gaza killed an Israeli-American woman living there.