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Reports differ on whether the explosion was the result of an airstrike or a car bomb. But the incident, coming after several similar strikes in recent months, marks a return by Israel to the targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants, which Israel had largely stopped since the ending of the Cast Lead offensive in Gaza in January 2009.
According to Israeli military, the man killed in the attack, Muhammad Jamal Nimnim, was a leader of Army of Islam, the group responsible for the kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston in 2007. Mr. Nimnim was killed around noon Wednesday when his car exploded on a busy street in Gaza City. Palestinian news agency Maan reports that some eyewitnesses and security officials said the explosion was caused by a bomb placed under the driver’s side seat, while others claimed it was the result of an airstrike from an Israeli drone.
Nimnim was killed in the explosion, which left a smoking hulk of a car burning in the street as this BBC video shows. The passenger in the car was wounded and taken to the hospital, and several bystanders were also injured, reports Maan.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the attack was a joint operation of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service. The Jerusalem Post, which called the explosion a car bomb, reports that the Shin Bet said the Israeli Air Force was involved in the operation.
The IDF referred to Nimnim as a “ticking bomb,” and said he was planning attacks against Israeli and American targets in the Sinai Peninsula, and had been involved in attacks on Israel over the past several years.
The Post reports that he was a senior aide to Mumtaz Dughmush, head of the Army of Islam. According to the paper, he was recently arrested by the Hamas government and questioned about his role in shooting rockets at Israel. Since the end of Cast Lead, Hamas and Israel have largely held to an unofficial truce, in which Hamas militants do not shoot rockets at Israel and Israel does not attack Hamas.
As The Christian Science Monitor reported, however, Hamas has faced difficulty in keeping splinter militant groups, like Army of Islam, from attacking Israel. Many of these groups have attracted fighters who feel that Hamas’s truce with Israel is an abandonment of the Palestinian resistance cause, and they have attempted to flout Hamas rule by launching rockets on their own.
But the raids and deadly rocket fire that prompted them are becoming a growing problem for Hamas, which rules Gaza and has largely adhered to a de facto cease-fire with Israel but has struggled recently to rein in local extremist groups who lambast the movement for what they say is its increasingly moderate stance.
“These types of attacks from other groups in Gaza, like the one on Thursday, anger Hamas, because Hamas wants to show the entire world they are in control here,” says Gaza-based political analyst, Haidar Eid. “Hamas wants to govern and rebuild, but it’s not giving an alternative to the other groups who want to continue to fight Israel."
But Maan recently reported than the group Islamic Jihad has apparently joined Hamas in its cease-fire. The group refused to claim two men believed to be its members when they were killed by an Israeli airstrike in October. Israel said the two men were planning to fire rockets at Israel.