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September 27, 2002

Militant 'survives' Gaza attack

An Israeli missile attack in the Gaza Strip failed to kill a senior leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an Israeli cabinet minister has said.

The reports I received were that (Mr Deif) was indeed injured but did not suffer a life-threatening injury

Israeli minister Matan Vilnai

Science Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel army radio that Mohammad Deif - who heads the military wing of Hamas - was not seriously wounded in the attack

Israeli officials initially said Mr Deif had been killed in Thursday's missile strike in Gaza City - although this was denied by Palestinian sources.

The strike in a crowded area killed two of Mr Deif's bodyguards and wounded about 40 others, drawing criticism from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"The reports I received from our people were that (Mr Deif) was indeed injured but did not suffer a life-threatening injury," Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Vilnai, a member of Israel's security cabinet, added that Mr Deif survived because Israel had not used powerful weapons for fear of causing too many civilian casualties.

Most wanted

The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Jerusalem says Israel's government and defence establishment will be sorely disappointed: Mr Deif was their most-wanted man.

Nicknamed the "Head of the Snake", he is held responsible for a number of devastating suicide bombings in the mid-1990s and for guiding Hamas's military strategy in the last two years.

Annan issued a firm statement

"Deif has constantly initiated and led attacks against Israel," Mr Vilnai said.

The strike occurred in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood - a Hamas stronghold in the north of Gaza City.

Mr Deif escaped a similar Israeli attack last year, when he jumped out of a car seconds before it was struck by a missile.

The UN secretary-general condemned Thursday's attack and called on Israel to halt military action in densely-populated areas.

Mr Annan's spokesman urged Israel to "conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law".


Hamas has promised retaliation, and security forces across Israel are on high alert.

An Israeli flag has been raised over Arafat's compound

Hamas militants have killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings during the two-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended Israel's siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound.

He said wanted men holed up inside the compound are "the biggest terrorists that exist".

Israeli forces invaded and started destroying the compound on 19 September following two suicide bomb attacks in two days.

Meanwhile, reports from the West Bank say Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas member as he tried to flee when they went to arrest him.

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