Widening its pursuit of Hamas beyond the occupied territories, Israel reached into Damascus Sunday, dealing a blow to both Hamas and Syria.
Even as part of official Israel declined to comment Sunday on the death of Izz el-Deen al-Sheikh Khalil, a Hamas operative killed in a car bomb, Israeli security sources told the Associated Press and the Haaretz newspaper that Israel was indeed responsible.
After last month's double bus bombing in the southern city of Beersheba, claimed by Hamas, Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon had said that Israel would "deal with those who support terror" including those "in terror command posts in Damascus."
But Israeli analysts say the killing of Mr. Khalil was more than retribution. Operationally, it deprives Hamas of a key military leader, they say, while it also sends a tough signal to Syria that Israel will not tolerate its hosting of Hamas and other radical groups in Damascus.
"Khalil was the Salah Shehadeh of Damascus," says a former security official who requested anonymity. He was referring to the chief military leader of Hamas in Gaza who was assassinated by a one-ton bomb dropped on his residence in Gaza City two years ago.
The former official says that Khalil was responsible for smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip from Egypt and for organizing armed operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "The capability of Hamas to activate attacks in the West Bank and Gaza from outside will be reduced for a while," he says.
"Also," he continues, "this attack inside Syria's capital shows the authorities in Damascus that it cannot be used as a hiding place. This is a blow to the prestige of the regime."
In Damascus, a neighbor of Khalil who identified himself only as Nabil said, "He said good morning to us like he did everyday and walked to his car. He got into his car and then the phone rang. When he took the call we heard the explosion. We rushed toward his car and found pieces in the back seat."
Ahmad Haj Ali, an adviser to the Syrian information minister described the bombing as a "terrorist and cowardly action."
Ghazi Hamed, editor of the Hamas-affiliated al-Risala weekly, faults Washington for the bombing. "Israel would not do this without American permission," he says. "The United States is threatening Syria that 'Israel will attack you if you don't do what we want.' "
Khalil was the latest in a string of Hamas leaders to die at Israel's hands, the others better known than he was. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement's founder, was assassinated by a helicopter gunship in March as he left a mosque after prayers and acting leader Abdul-Aziz Rantissi was killed a month later.
"Following the killing of Yassin and Rantissi, the leadership outside became much more important," says Reuven Paz, director of the PRISM research institute in Herzliya, near Tel AviV. He estimates that there are 20 to 30 Hamas officials in Damascus that deal with foreign relations, finance, and directing military operations.
But Mr. Hamed says the Damascus headquarters is political and not military: "Israel believes that if it cuts the legs and hands of Hamas outside, then it will impact on Hamas here. I don't think so."
He says the armed wing in the occupied territories is independent and does not receive its orders from outside. Asked about Khalil, Hamed said he did not know what positions he held. He recalled that Khalil was deported to Lebanon along with 414 other Hamas figures in 1992, but, unlike the others, he did not to return to the occupied territories when they were allowed back.
Damascus, according to Mr. Paz, is no longer a safe place for Hamas not only because of Israeli military action but because of American pressure on Syria to oust radical groups headquartered there.
"Regimes like the Syrian regime might think that they are next after Iraq," he says. "And maybe [President] Bashar Assad would like to renew peace negotiations with Israel. He could easily sell out the Hamas leadership to improve his situation with the US or Israel."
Paz believes that despite the Israeli military strikes, Hamas is a highly durable organization inside the occupied territories.
"This is not just a terrorist organization, it has a well-organized social, educational, and cultural infrastructure which is seen as incorrupt. They might take a break now [from attacks] to invest more efforts in the municipal elections" beginning on Dec. 9, in which Hamas will field candidates, he says.
But Sami Abu Zahari, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, pointed toward revenge.
"This crime expands and enlarges the struggle into Arab lands. The reply is obvious: escalating the attacks. We count on our Arab and Moslem youth to take action," he told Al Jaazera in an interview Sunday.
• Wire services contributed to this report.