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Peace draft drowns in tit-for-tat blood

Gaza, Sept. 10 (Reuters): An Israeli warplane narrowly failed in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader but killed his son and a bodyguard in Gaza today, a day after two Palestinan suicide bombers killed 15 in Israel.

The missile strike flattened the two-storey home of Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of the militant Islamic group and one of its top political officials, as a new wave of tit-for-tat violence drowned a dying US-backed peace plan in blood.

Zahar, 58, had been standing in the doorway of the house when the missile hit and was thrown clear by the force of the explosion, witnesses said. He sustained only slight injuries to his head and back but his wife was seriously hurt, medics said.

Trying to defuse a political crisis that has coincided with the surge of bloodletting, Palestinian parliamentary speaker Ahmed Qurie said he had accepted Yasser Arafat’s nomination as prime minister and would seek parliamentary approval for an emergency cabinet tomorrow.

Qurie condemned the assassination attempt against Zahar as “cowardly”, while thousands of Hamas supporters took to the streets of Gaza City chanting: “Death to Israel”.

It was the latest in a series of strikes on Hamas leaders in recent weeks and was in reprisal for back-to-back bombings yesterday, one that killed eight soldiers at bus stop near Tel Aviv and a second that killed seven people in a Jerusalem cafe.

Amid a deepening cycle of death and retribution, Israelis and Palestinians alike braced for more of the same, seeing little chance of salvaging a US-backed peace “road map” seen as the last hope for ending nearly three years of bloodshed. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who cut short his visit to India, said in New Delhi: “We will make every effort to bring terror to an end.”

After the Gaza strike, Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian cabinet minister, said in the West Bank city of Ramallah: “We condemn this crime. It will only lead to fuelling the cycle of violence.”

The latest Palestinian attacks provoked Israeli threats to put Arafat in “solitary confinement” in his West Bank compound, cutting him off from the outside world. Finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would speed up construction of a security barrier in the West Bank, a project the Palestinians call a new “Berlin Wall” but which Israel says is needed to keep out suicide bombers.

An Israeli source said Zahar was one of the officials “at the top of the Hamas pyramid” who gave approval for attacks and used his role as a leading Hamas spokesman for “unbridled incitement” against the Jewish state. Hamas officials have described Zahar’s activities as strictly political, a distinction Israel rejects. Israel stoked Hamas anger by trying to kill its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in an air attack in Gaza City on Saturday. The wheelchair-bound Yassin was only slightly wounded.

Israeli officials indicated that proposals to re-impose a tight siege on Arafat, who has been largely confined to his battered headquarters, are under close consideration as an alternative to exiling him.

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