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Analysts: Assassination of Hamas Leader in Syria Signals Wider Front Against Palestinian Militants - 2004-09-27


The car-bombing death of a Hamas leader in Damascus opens another front on the war against the Palestinian militant group. Syria blames Israel. Israel is not commenting. But analysts say the assassination sends a signal to Syria of the consequences of letting Hamas operate in its territory.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the car bombing death of a Hamas leader in Damascus. But Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim did not mince words when talking about how far Israel could reach to strike at suspected terrorists.

Minister Boim told Army Radio anyone who attacks Israel, anyone who is a partner in terror and murder, is marked whether he operates within Israel's borders or outside.

Mr. Boim also repeated Israel's criticism of Syria for allowing Palestinian militant groups to operate in its territory.

Syria is responsible for directing terror against us, Mr. Boim says, and Syria is not immune to our operations to prevent terror.

Analyst Ely Karmon of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzeliya says a strike in the heart of an Arab neighbor sends a strong signal to more than just Palestinian extremists.

"It has a double meaning," he said. "If it is indeed Israel responsible for the targeting then it's a message to Hamas leadership on one hand. But, it's mainly a message to the Syrian leadership because they didn't change their strategy to use proxies in their war against Israel."

Even though Syria blames Israel for the assassination, political analyst Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University doubts there will be any retaliation. He says the strike in Damascus shows Syria's vulnerability and weakness because there is no support for striking back at Israel, nor would there be any political gain.

Syria already has come under international criticism for letting Palestinian organizations like Hamas operate in its territory and for supporting the anti-Israeli fighters in southern Lebanon.

In addition, military analyst Ze'ev Schiff writes in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that Syria could respond indirectly through its support for anti-Israel groups that do seek action.

This is not the first strike against Hamas, which is blamed for killing more than 450 Israelis in the past four years. Israeli warplanes hit the group's spiritual leader and a top aide last March in Gaza, and Israel has also killed other top Hamas leaders in the territory.

The car bombing death in Damascus also is not the first strike outside Israel or the Palestinian territories.

Analyst Mark Heller also cites the 1988 assassination in Tunis of the military chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the 1995 killing in Malta of an Islamic Jihad leader.

Counter-terrorism experts say hitting those who mastermind terrorist operations is more effective than just targeting bomb-making factories or safe houses.

Hamas has vowed revenge for the assassination and some of its leaders are warning that it could strike against Israeli interests anywhere. That would mark a break from a long-standing policy to restrict its attacks to Israeli territory.

Security has been increased at Israeli diplomatic missions around the world.

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