GAZA, Sept 25: Israel killed a top Islamic Jihad commander in an air strike on Sunday as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud party considered whether he should soon face a leadership election over a Gaza pullout he championed. The attack on a car on Gaza’s coastal road killed Mohammed al-Sheikh Khalil, described by Islamic Jihad as one of its “most senior commanders in Palestine”. The group called for revenge and its gunmen threatened to abandon a ceasefire in effect since February.
Mr Khalil’s deputy, who was not immediately identified, was also killed and four people were wounded, medics said, in part of the worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence since Israel completed the Gaza withdrawal two weeks ago.
Earlier, Israel arrested more than 200 suspected militants in the West Bank as Sharon ordered the army to use any means to stop rocket salvoes from Gaza.
The air strike was launched soon after the Likud’s Central Committee convened in Tel Aviv ahead of a vote on Monday on a motion by Sharon’s rightist challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, to bring the party’s primary forward to November.
A party official announced Mr Khalil’s death from the podium, drawing applause. Mr Sharon’s opponents in the Likud have said the Gaza pullout after five years of Palestinian violence would only bring more cross-border attacks on Israel.
The party vote could turn Israeli politics on its head.
Mr Sharon, who wants the party primary held closer to national parliamentary elections due by late next year, has said “radical extremists” have taken control of the Likud, which he helped to found three decades ago.
He has declined to say whether he would remain in the party if the 3,000-member Central Committee vote goes against him, raising speculation he may bolt and form a new centrist alliance that would tap into mainstream support for the Gaza pullout.
ASSASSINATIONS: In helicopter strikes on Saturday, Israel killed two militants and wounded 20 other Palestinians. A helicopter also targeted a building in northern Gaza on Sunday which the military said was used by militants.—Reuters