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Key Palestinian militant declares strikes on Israel will continue

RAFAH, Gaza Strip—Jamal Abu Samhadana hardly looks like a man with a target on his back.

Sitting at a safe house eating fresh guava and figs, one of Israel's most wanted Palestinian militants says his group has no plans to stop its attacks, even though the Jewish nation has ended its 38 years of military rule in the Gaza Strip.

"All of Israel is a military base," Samhadana said in a rare interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers. "All the Israeli people are soldiers in the Israeli army."

Samhadana's vow to continue striking Israel suggests that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas still faces a difficult challenge in fulfilling his pledge to bring order to the Gaza Strip by reining in armed groups like Samhadana's Popular Resistance Committees.

Over the past five years, committee members have been responsible for some of the highest-profile attacks in the Gaza Strip, including the recent assassination of a senior military adviser to Abbas and a trio of deadly strikes that for the first time exposed the vulnerability of Israeli tanks.

The attacks have made Samhadana one of Israel's most wanted. He narrowly avoided assassination last December when an Israeli missile hit his car.

Over the weekend, Samhadana appeared relaxed, smoking cigarettes, drinking tea and joking with those who joined him at the safe house during the interview. Samhadana said he keeps a low profile and moves several times a day in response to a new Israeli offensive.

While top militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have renewed their pledge to stop launching attacks in the wake of a deadly weeklong Israeli military campaign, Samhadana said his forces will respond to the Israeli operation that has left at least eight Palestinians dead. Among those killed was Mohammed Khalil, a top Islamic Jihad militant and Samhadana ally.

On Sunday, the Israeli military said that it would investigate the most recent shooting death of an unarmed 13-year-old boy in the West Bank town of Nablus where Israeli soldiers opened fire on a small group of Palestinians throwing stones and bottles at passing troops. An initial military investigation has concluded that although soldiers saw someone with a weapon in the crowd, they violated policy by opening fire.

"We will not stand by and watch our people being attacked by Israel in the West Bank," said Samhadana. "We will not just issue statements about these attacks. We will respond to these atrocities in suitable ways."

Although the group has focused mostly on soldiers and settlers in its attacks, Samhadana said—"God willing"—that it would use suicide bombers and longer-range missiles to strike Israeli civilians.

"The Israeli army and the settlers are our main targets," he said. "However, in love and war, a lot of things can happen."

The Palestinian Authority downplayed Samhadana's comments and suggested that, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees would be compelled by diminishing support among the Palestinian public to hold its fire and allow the political process to move forward.

Diana Buttu, a legal adviser with the Palestinian Authority, said a lot would be determined by Israel's own actions.

"The button that is pushed to go or not go with these actions is largely dependent on what Israel does or doesn't do," said Buttu. "If there is no action on the part of Israel with its assassination policy, you'll see support for these things on the Palestinian street drop."

While Samhadana's group has a lower profile than Hamas or Islamic Jihad, it has been involved in several major attacks that have put its leaders in the Israeli cross hairs.

In 2002, the group developed powerful mines against Israeli tanks in a series of operations that killed seven soldiers and exposed a surprising Achilles heel for the military.

The following year, Palestinian authorities arrested—but later released without charges—four members of the group and accused them of being behind another roadside bombing that killed three members of a U.S. diplomatic convoy at the Israel-Gaza Strip border.

More recently, members of the group staged a brazen attack on the home of Moussa Arafat, a widely reviled security adviser to Abbas and cousin of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

While members of the committee said the killing of Moussa Arafat was meant to send a signal to Abbas that he needed to root out corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Samhadana distanced himself from the operation and blamed a rouge group within his committee for the assassination.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-GAZA

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