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September 27, 2002

Def may not have been killed, but 'Gaza First' is dead

It did not need an Israel Air Force helicopter missile strike in the heart of Gaza City on Thursday afternoon to prove that the "Gaza and Bethlehem First" plan is not actually being implemented in the Strip.

For quite some time the Strip has been taken out of the cease-fire plan that was initiated by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. On Wednesday night Kassam rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Sderot, in the Negev, and earlier this week the IDF carried out wide-scale operations deep into Gaza to destroy factories used to produce rockets.

In Bethlehem, on the other hand, relative calm has prevailed, and the Palestinian side is making an effort to maintain order and quiet. Israel is actually making the implementation of the cease-fire in the Bethlehem area difficult. On Thursday work was resumed in paving a bypass road from an area southeast of Beit Sahur, and tractors accompanied by armed plainclothes men began digging on private land.

At present Israel prefers to avoid wide-ranging operations such as sending in armored divisions to occupy the Gaza Strip, and prefers to focus on nabbing those responsible for suicide bombings. Even if, as now appears likely, the head of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, Mohammed Def, evaded an assassination attempt on Thursday, he and his cohorts know that Israeli intelligence is tracking him, and that even if he goes further into hiding, it is a matter of time until he is killed.

If he was not killed Thursday, Def will be forced go deep into hiding. Wanted men know that the operation Thursday, like the assassination of Salah Shehadah in July, is impossible without the infiltration of Israeli intelligence into the terrorist organizations' military wings. The assessment in Israel is that Def was in one of the cars that was hit Thursday; a car cannot be hit without knowing who is usually in the car and who was in it when it set out.

It is now clear that even if Def was not killed, he will try to avenge his attempted assassination, although in the past he did not need such an excuse to initiate terror attacks.

In the meantime, until the details of the result of the operation in Gaza are known, Israel is carefully wording its statements. On Thursday Israel refrained from issuing an official announcement on the attack, and details on the circumstances of the operation and on Def himself were provided only as background information.

Israel has a long and bloody account to settle with Def, and to some degree with the Palestinian Authority regarding Def. Despite his involvement in the murder of civilians and soldiers, in suicide bus bombings, and dispatching terrorists to attack settlements, he visited the Preventive Security offices in Gaza on several occasions, even during periods when there was formal cooperation between Israel and Palestinian security services. Israeli intelligence did not cease seeking an opportunity to nab Def, and tried to do so on several occasions in the past.

Now we must wait to see what criticism the world will direct towards Israel. Those that criticized the decision to impose a siege on the Muqata in Ramallah questioned why Israel was not taking action against senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, after the organization claimed credit for the suicide bus bombing on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv last week. Foreign ambassadors asked similar questions this week in a meeting with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

By Ze'ev Schiff, Ha'aretz Correspondent

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