Two leaders of the militant Hamas movement who were described as "master terrorists" by Israel were shot to death by Israeli security forces in a daylight raid on an isolated West Bank hide-out, Israeli officials said Friday.
The men, brothers Adel and Imad Awadallah, were leaders of the secretive military wing of the extremist Islamic group and had been sought by Israel for planning and participating in attacks that killed five Israelis and wounded more than 50 others. Adel Awadallah, 31, had topped Israel's most wanted list in the West Bank.
Israeli officials said they hoped that the deaths of the Awadallahs, who were slain Thursday but whose identities were not announced until Friday, will cripple, at least for a while, Hamas' ability to launch attacks against the Jewish state. The group is violently opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has tried to scuttle it with suicide bombings that have claimed dozens of Israeli lives in the last five years.
But Hamas immediately vowed to avenge the killings with violence that will shake Israel "like an earthquake." Leaflets circulated Friday at a Hamas rally in the Gaza Strip said it would retaliate with attacks reminiscent of a devastating series of bombings that followed Israel's 1996 assassination of the group's master bomb-maker, Yehiya Ayash. And throughout the West Bank, young Palestinians protested the brothers' deaths by hurling stones at Israeli soldiers and shouting for revenge.
Israel clamped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, preventing most Palestinians from crossing its borders, and ordered security forces on heightened alert.
The latest tensions came as U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross, who arrived in the region Wednesday, met with both sides to try again to hammer out a deal for an Israeli troop withdrawal from more of the West Bank in exchange for concrete steps by the Palestinians to crack down on Hamas and other extremists.
There were no reports of a breakthrough, and Ross' already herculean task appeared even more difficult in the wake of the killings. The Palestinian Authority on Friday joined Hamas, its frequent nemesis, in condemning the killing of the Awadallahs, and a senior Palestinian official, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, described Israel's action as "state terrorism."
But many questions remained unanswered after the shootings in this tranquil farm community west of the city of Hebron, including whether Palestinian security forces played a supporting role in helping Israel kill the men, who were wanted by both sides, and whether the Israeli army was initially unaware of who the brothers were, as senior officers claimed.
Israeli reporters said they were told by security sources that the men's identities were confirmed before the attack on the hilltop cottage at midafternoon Thursday.
Imad Awadallah, 26, had escaped last month from a Palestinian jail in Jericho, where he was being held on suspicion of killing another Hamas leader, Mohiedin Sharif, in March. Hamas blamed Israel for Sharif's death, but Palestinian officials said he was killed in a power struggle within the militant group. Both Awadallah brothers were implicated in Sharif's death, but Adel became a fugitive and was never arrested.
Relatives of the Awadallahs said Friday that they believed the Palestinian police allowed Imad to escape in hopes he would lead them--or the Israelis--to Adel. Their mother, Nimeh, angrily blamed the men's deaths on Jibril Rajoub, who heads Palestinian security forces on the West Bank.
But their father, Ahmad Awadallah, said he was not surprised by their deaths. "They have asked for martyrdom since they took this road" with Hamas, he said. "They did not expect to come out alive."
At a news conference at the site Friday, an Israeli army commander said that an elite anti-terror unit was ordered to storm the one-room building after three days of surveillance prompted by reports of explosions and gunfire at the house, which is in an Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank.
After arresting and briefly interrogating the owner of the house, a wealthy Hebron businessman, the troops burst in, killing the Awadallahs before they had time to reach for their weapons, said Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Eitan, the commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank. He said the men were not warned or given time to surrender, and maintained that any such warning would have endangered the lives of Israeli soldiers.
Eitan said the brothers had apparently intended to kidnap Israelis or carry out drive-by shootings, and he displayed a small cache of weapons and equipment discovered at the home, including nine grenades, two automatic weapons, several pistols and half a dozen wigs.
"Wherever we find terrorists, we will arrest or kill them," he said.
Inside the building, bullet holes pocked the walls, and the ceiling was splattered with what appeared to be blood. A large banner on one wall bore the name of the Hamas military wing, the Iziddin al-Qassam brigades, and an odd collection of audiocassettes, including Koranic verses and popular Egyptian music, stood on a small table.
Relatives of the owner, Akram Maswada, one of Hebron's most prominent businessmen, said he remained in custody Friday in a Jerusalem jail. A brother, Tayseer Maswada, said he did not believe that Akram had any connection to Hamas, although another brother is an active supporter of the group.
But members of a family living on a hill just opposite the house said that they had seen Maswada carrying food to those staying at his residence and that he frequently visited them at night.