The militant Islamic group Hamas vowed Saturday to assassinate Israeli politicians as revenge for the killing of one of its top ideologues in a missile strike.
Ibrahim Makadmeh, a close associate of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was among the most senior Palestinian figures killed over the last 2 1/2 years. Israeli forces targeted him with helicopter-fired missiles early Saturday in an attack that left body parts, charred clothing and shards of metal strewn over a cobbled street in the heart of Gaza City.
"All military options are open in the targeting of Jewish political leaders and government officials," the military wing of Hamas, Izzidin al-Qassam, said in a statement faxed to Western news organizations. "The terrorist Zionist government will realize the scope of the catastrophe it has unleashed."
During the 29-month intifada, or uprising, only one senior Israeli politician has been killed by Palestinian militants, despite many alleged plots against figures such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi was gunned down in a Jerusalem hotel in October 2001 in an attack that was said to be in retaliation for Israel's assassination of a senior Palestinian political leader several months earlier.
Makadmeh, 51, was an early confidant of Yassin and a fellow activist in a predecessor to Hamas called the Muslim Brotherhood. Both men were arrested by Israel in the early 1980s and spent years in prison.
Both also ran afoul of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which jailed Makadmeh in the 1990s for trying to start a more radical offshoot of Hamas. In recent years, Makadmeh maintained a low profile but was considered one of the driving ideological forces behind Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.
According to witnesses, Israeli helicopters swooped over Makadmeh's vehicle just after 8 a.m. near a neighborhood that is home to several top Hamas activists, firing four missiles in rapid succession. At least two of the missiles directly hit the white SUV, reducing it to a burnt hulk, shattering windows in nearby buildings and leaving bloodstained craters in the street.
The Israeli army said it had no comment on the incident. Israel has killed scores of Palestinian militant leaders in what it calls "pinpoint" strikes, which have been denounced by human rights groups as extrajudicial executions.
Israeli intelligence said Makadmeh masterminded many attacks against Israelis, including one on an Israeli tank Feb. 15 outside a Jewish settlement in the northern Gaza Strip that killed the four-man crew.
Since then, Israel has engaged in a concerted campaign of raids against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, killing several senior activists, arresting others and demolishing half a dozen homes belonging to militants. By the count of human rights groups, several dozen civilians have died in the raids.
Meanwhile, in a swath of northern Gaza, dozens of Israeli tanks have dug in atop scrubby sand dunes, taking up positions in what many Palestinians believe is a precursor to a complete takeover of the narrow, crowded coastal strip.
Palestinian security sources and Hamas activists described Makadmeh, who was a dentist and a lecturer at Gaza City's Islamic University, as a political leader rather than a military one -- but within the ranks of Hamas, the distinction is often blurred.
Thousands of Palestinians, some masked and firing assault rifles into the air, took to the dusty streets of Gaza for Makadmeh's funeral Saturday, chanting calls for vengeance.
"We will cut off 100 heads to pay for the death of our martyr!" mourners shouted.
Also Saturday, a 16th victim died of injuries sustained in the suicide bombing Wednesday of a bus in the northern Israeli coastal city of Haifa. Hamas claimed responsibility for that attack. The dead included students and a father and son.