A fiery explosion in the middle of a busy street killed the top military commander of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. The Palestinian militant group immediately blamed Israel, which denied involvement.
Adding to tensions, gunmen in the West Bank killed a Jewish settler and, in another part of the territory, seriously wounded a second Israeli man. Roadside attacks were common at the height of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, but had become less common over the last year.
The explosion in Gaza came as Islamic Jihad commander Khaled Dahdouh was driving through the center of Gaza City. The massive blast sent shrapnel and body parts flying on a crowded thoroughfare in the Rimal neighborhood.
The blast injured two apparent bystanders, Palestinian medical officials said. It also shattered windows in nearby apartments, damaged parked cars and briefly knocked out power to the area.
“I ran outside to see what had happened, and I saw the burning car and pieces of a body,” said Yousef Habush, an electrician.
When Israeli forces carry out a “targeted killing” of a militant leader, the military generally acknowledges having done so. But an army spokeswoman emphatically denied responsibility for this death, though Israel had tried to kill Dahdouh in the past.
“We had nothing at all to do with the explosion,” Maj. Avital Leibovich said.
Islamic Jihad nonetheless vowed vengeance against Israel. “We will attack in full force to avenge this crime,” said a spokesman who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Hafs.
Islamic Jihad said the 39-year-old Dahdouh was responsible for many attacks against Israelis and had commanded the group’s military wing in Gaza as well as overseen its manufacture of armaments, including homemade rockets.
However, Islamic Jihad dismissed the possibility that Dahdouh might have been transporting explosives that went off accidentally.
Unlike the larger and more powerful militant group Hamas, Islamic Jihad over the last year has pressed ahead with a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks in Israel. The Israelis have repeatedly targeted its members in response.
Hamas, which won January’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, has largely adhered to an informal truce for the last year since entering politics. However, the group has not renounced its formal aim of destroying the Jewish state, and the Israeli government has said that until Hamas reverses that stance, it will refuse to deal with the incoming Palestinian Authority administration.
With Israel’s parliamentary elections less than a month away, Israeli leaders and candidates for office have been vying with one another in pledging tough action against Palestinian militants who carry out attacks of any kind against Israelis.
In the first of the two shooting attacks in the West Bank on Wednesday, gunmen killed Eldar Abir, 48, from the settlement of Migdalim, about eight miles southeast of the Palestinian city of Nablus. He was ambushed as he filled up his car at a gas station at the settlement’s entrance.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia with links to the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, claimed responsibility for the killing. Israeli police said they were investigating. The gunmen escaped.
“We are doing everything we can to provide freedom of movement for Palestinians,” said Leibovich, the army spokeswoman. “But with events like today’s, we wish the Palestinian Authority would take steps to change the security situation.”
In the other shooting, an Israeli motorist was seriously wounded on a road near the West Bank town of Kalkilya. The army launched a manhunt for the assailants.
The two shootings came a day after two Israelis, a man and a teenage girl, were injured by a Palestinian who stabbed them at a bus stop near a West Bank settlement near Hebron.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted military officials as saying they feared an upsurge in small-scale attacks by other Palestinian militant groups seeking to bolster their prestige in the wake of Hamas’ election victory.
Times special correspondent Rushdie abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.