JERUSALEM — The Israeli army failed in its attempt to kill a senior leader from the militant group Hamas Tuesday, but the missile strikes succeeded in casting further doubt on the US-backed road map for peace and deepening Palestinian distrust of Israeli intentions.
Tuesday morning three helicopter gunships swooped in over Gaza City, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and fired seven missiles at a Jeep Pajero carrying Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The attack killed two and wounded 35, including Mr. Rantisi, who heads Hamas's political wing. It underscored the division between Palestinians and Israelis and may have widened it just as political negotiations are starting.
In a statement, the Israeli government blamed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority for failing to stop the activities of Mr. Rantisi, whom they link to an attack that killed four Israeli soldiers in Gaza on Sunday.
While Palestinians saw the missile strike as a fiery Israeli repudiation of the road map, many Israelis saw it as a favor to Prime Minister Abbas, who is trying to rein in the militant group.
Ultimately, analysts say, the road map's chances will depend on US reaction - which was swift and firm.
"The strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks, and does not contribute to the security of Israel," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"The US statement [is] pretty crucial to the reaction here," says a foreign diplomat. "If it looks like [the US] condones or accepts this, the Palestinian street theory that all of this has been fixed up in advance [between the US and Israel] ... will gain credence."
Abbas condemned Israel's action as "criminal and terrorist," and Hamas vowed revenge.
The missile strike came the day after Israel took down 10 small, uninhabited settlement outposts, buildings used to expand the boundaries of a settlement or create a new one (See story). The attack and the outpost action sent sharply conflicting signals as to Israel's stance on the peace plan.
Dismantling the outposts is a road map requirement, yet Israel is also committed under the road map not to take actions that undermine trust.
As a result, critics have questioned the timing of the attacks, suggesting that Israel is attempting to undermine Abbas and possibly scuttle the road map by provoking violence from Hamas that could stymie the Palestinian prime minister's attempts to establish a crucial cease-fire.
"It's clear that Israel doesn't want peace and they want [Abbas] to lose his battle [against Hamas]," says Hisham Ahmed, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.
"It was either a mistake, a counter-productive operation or a provocation, depending on what [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's motives were," says Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher. "I have no doubt this was approved at highest echelons."
At the scene of the attack, Mohammed Abu Arrab sat outside his car dealership with a bandage wrapped around his head. "Of course, this is terrorism. If Abu Mazen achieves our demands, we will support him. Until now, he has brought nothing; just six rockets. There is no one who does not want peace, but we want to be free. There must be a response to this attack."
Hamas has killed scores of Israelis since the current conflict began 32 months ago and has been the largest Palestinian stumbling block to the road map, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
The militant group has condemned the peace plan, which the US drafted with the help of Russia, the European Union and United Nations and was formally unveiled by President George Bush on June 4 in Aqaba, Jordan.
Hamas was particularly critical of Abbas's denunciation of "terrorism" in Aqaba and his declaration that it was time to end armed struggle against Israel. It subsequently refused Abbas's entreaties for a cease-fire, a central condition that Israel has imposed before it complies with any of its obligations under the road map. The day before the attack, Abbas said he planned to continue talks with Hamas.
Last week President Bush declared the group an "enemy of peace." Shortly before the attack on Rantisi, however, Hamas leaders said publicly that they would consider a truce, according to media reports.
Some analysts say Israel had been trying to help Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen. "We are helping Abu Mazen to weaken Hamas ... they are the ones who oppose the road map," says Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. "This is the only way to deal with Islamic terrorists, you kill them," adds Mr. Inbar of the missile attack. "It's what the Americans have done on Afghanistan and what we are doing here."
• Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza.