Gaza militant assassinated by Israel, sparking fears of wider violence

Israeli confirmed its targeted assassination of Zuhair al-Qaissi was the chief of the Popular Resistance Committees, a pro-Hamas militant group that has threatened retaliation.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinians gather around the wreckage of a car targeted in an airstrike in Gaza City, Friday, March 9, 2012. An Israeli airstrike killed top Palestinian militant commander Zuhair al-Qaissi and a second militant in Gaza on Friday in the highest profile attack against the coastal strip in months.
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An Israeli air strike today killed the chief of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a pro-Hamas militant group that today declared it will no longer honor the tenuous cease-fire with Israel.

PRC Secretary-General Zuhair al-Qaissi and his aide, Mohammed Hannani were instantly killed when their car was targeted by Israeli rockets in Gaza City's densely populated Tal al-Hawa neighborhood. Witnesses said unmanned drones were flying overhead just before the attack.

The targeted assassination of Mr. Qaissi, confirmed by the Israeli army, marks the highest-profile casualty in Gaza in recent months. Observers say it could widen the cycle of violence if Palestinian factions retaliate.

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"It seems that Israel is meant to drag Gaza militants into violence again," says Mukhaimar Abu Sada, professor of political science at Gaza's al-Azhar University. "I believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to get more domestic support through killing resistance leaders in Gaza."

Avihai Edrie, a spokesman for Israel's Army, said in a statement that the attack came after two homemade rockets were fired at southern Israel. Mr. Edrie added that the two men were also planning to carry out a terrorist attack on the borders between Egypt and Israel.

Hannani planned suicide attacks

The PRC is one of the three organizations behind the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel also accuses the PRC of carrying out a series of attacks near the Red Sea resort of Eilat in southern Israel last year that left seven Israelis killed and scores injured. The group denied any responsibility for the attacks.

Qaissi took over as head of the PRC last year after Israel's assassination of Kamal al-Nairab. Among other duties, he was responsible for bringing funds to his group from Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Mr. Hannani, originally from the West Bank, was jailed by Israel in 2006 after he had prepared two suicide bombers for an operation in Jerusalem. The two were arrested a few days before carrying the suicide attacks.

Israel released Hannani as part of a prisoner swap for Sgt. Maj. Shalit last year, but expelled him to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. He is the first prisoner freed in the deal to be assassinated by Israel.

The remains of the two were brought to Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Two others were also injured in the attack, hospital sources said. In a separate attack later in the day, two Islamic Jihad militants who were attempting to fire rockets into Israel were also killed.

PRC vows it will not honor cease-fire with Israel

The Hamas rulers of Gaza maintain a shaky cease-fire with Israel. But most of other minor militant groups, mainly PRC and Islamic Jihad, are widely believed to be behind regular rocket fire against Israel.

Today's assassination could heat up Israel's southern front, especially after PRC announced it is no longer committed to the truce. “We are not committed to the cease-fire anymore. Israel will pay the price for its crimes," said PRC spokesman Abu Mujahed.

Prof. Abu Sada expected that violence will increase notably if Palestinians factions sent more rockets into Israel, adding that this might lead to a comprehensive military operation in Gaza.

At least 10 homemade rockets were fired into Israel by Palestinian militant groups over the past 10 days, and within hours of today's assassinations at least five Grad rockets were fired into Israel.

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