Israeli troops raided a West Bank hide-out early Monday and shot to death a senior commander of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and one of his top aides, military spokesmen and Palestinian officials said.
The killing of Luai Saadi, a most-wanted fugitive who Israeli authorities say orchestrated attacks that killed 12 Israelis this year, drew threats of vengeance from Islamic Jihad.
As Israel ushered in the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, the military stepped up its readiness and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned that any strike by Islamic Jihad would be met with a harsh response.
In the hours after Monday's raid, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip aimed a volley of rockets at Israeli towns, but they fell harmlessly in open fields. Early today, Israeli aircraft fired missiles that struck two buildings in Gaza described as linked to Islamic Jihad, and Palestinians reported that at least three people on the ground were hurt.
Also slain in Monday's predawn raid, carried out in the northern West Bank town of Tulkarm, was Majid Ashkar, identified by Israel as one of Saadi's closest lieutenants. But in a possible reflection of the fluid ties among Palestinian militant groups, another faction, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, claimed Ashkar as one of its own.
The fatal raid was the latest episode in the slow erosion of the optimism that prevailed after Israel completed its Gaza Strip withdrawal last month. Although there has been no single large outbreak of violence, the casualty count has grown steadily, mostly from small-scale attacks reminiscent of the early days of the Palestinian uprising.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was on a visit to Egypt and Jordan, issued a statement describing the slayings of the two men as assassinations. The Israeli incursion into Tulkarm, which is supposed to be under the control of Palestinian security forces, threatened to "undermine ... efforts to bring about calm and security," he said.
Israel said the raid in Tulkarm, which is considered a stronghold of Islamic Jihad, was planned as an arrest operation and was not a "targeted killing." The army said Saadi was shot after he fired on troops who had surrounded the hide-out.
Ashkar was fatally shot as he tried to flee in a car, and a second man in the vehicle was arrested, the army said.
Saadi, 26, who hailed from the village of Atil outside Tulkarm, was described by the military as a "major threat" involved in "widespread terror activities." It said he was the leader of a local Islamic Jihad cell that, among other attacks, planned and carried out a suicide bombing in February at a Tel Aviv nightclub, which killed five Israelis, and a July bombing outside a mall in the coastal city of Netanya, which also killed five Israelis.
The cell intended to attempt another suicide bombing in Israel within days, Israeli authorities said, citing intelligence reports. The commander who led the raid, Col. Aharon Haliva, told Israeli radio, "There's no doubt the lives of many Israelis were saved as a result of this action."
Of the major militant groups, Islamic Jihad has taken the most aggressive stance since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat nearly a year ago. The other main organizations, Hamas and the Al Aqsa brigade, have largely adhered to a unilateral cease-fire declared in February, despite occasional flare-ups.
Islamic Jihad said it had been observing the tahdia, or calm, and had only responded to Israeli violations, a notion that Israeli officials ridiculed.
This year, Israel announced that it had abandoned its policy of so-called targeted killings of Palestinian militant leaders, but it has said such restrictions no longer apply in regard to Islamic Jihad. Israel has also asserted a right to target "ticking bombs," or people it believes are planning imminent attacks.
Islamic Jihad said it would avenge the deaths in Tulkarm.
"We won't look on with our hands tied while the blood of our fighters is being shed," said a statement issued by the military wing. "Let the calm go to hell."
Since the Gaza pullout, Israel has arrested hundreds of suspected militants in the West Bank, where it fears the groups now intend to focus activities.