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Thursday, 1 January 2009

Israel fells key Hamas strongman, escalating conflict; says it's ready for ground invasion

BY MATTHEW KALMAN IN JERUSALEM AND HELEN KENNEDY IN NEW YORK
Daily News Writers

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Friday, January 2nd 2009
Katib/Getty
Palestinians search for bodies in the rubble of the destroyed house of Hamas senior leader Nizar Rayan after an Israeli missiles strike.

As Israel prepared a "short term" invasion of the Gaza Strip Thursday, a top Hamas terror leader sacrificed himself - and at least four of his children - in a vain attempt to protect a weapons cache beneath his home.

Nizar Rayyan, 49, a law professor at the Islamic University in Gaza and a prominent leader of the Hamas terrorist wing, died when Israeli jets fired three missiles into his four-story apartment building north of Gaza City.

Also killed were at least two of his four wives. There were unconfirmed reports that as many as all four wives and nine of his 12 kids died when the building was vaporized.

The Israeli Army said it phoned Rayyan minutes before the attack, urging him to evacuate before the building was bombed, but he refused.

Rayyan was the most senior Hamas figure killed in five years and the first to die in Israel's six-day-old bombardment of Gaza, aimed at toppling the Hamas government. "We are trying to hit everybody who is a leader of the organization," said Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon.

Rayyan was well-known, appearing on news videos wearing battle fatigues and brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, riding with heavily armed and masked members of the Qassam Brigades, the terrorist wing of Hamas. In October 2001, he sent his son on a suicide mission that killed two Israelis. Most Hamas leaders went into hiding, but not the defiant Rayyan.

"Many secondary explosions were identified as a result of the attack, thus proving that the house was used for storing weaponry," said an Israeli army spokesman.

Hamas said Israel would pay a "heavy price" for his death. The burly Rayyan was last seen Wednesday delivering a fiery sermon at a local mosque.

"Our only language with the Jew is through the gun," he declared, calling for a renewal of suicide bombings and vowing to kidnap any Israeli ground forces who dared to enter Gaza.

Rayyan was one of the architects of the bloody Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 in which 400 Palestinians loyal to the rival Fatah party were killed and dozens more maimed and tortured.

The death of Rayyan and his family brought the Palestinian death toll of "Operation Cast Lead" to about 420 in six days. Four Israelis have died.

Thousands of Israeli troops stood ready at the border, poised to begin a ground invasion.

Israeli military chiefs planned "a major, but relatively short-term, ground offensive," according to the Israeli Haaretz daily. Israeli TV reported an Israeli hospital near the Gaza border was evacuated to ready for the possibility of troop casualties.

Israel will allow 443 foreigners in Gaza to leave today.

"We did not declare war on Gaza's residents, but we will deal with Hamas with an iron fist," said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We have no interest in a lengthy war and we do not seek to expand the conflict. We want calm and a normal existence for the residents of [southern Israel]. We want children to grow up there with sense of security, rather than with fear and nightmares."

Egypt's foreign minister called on Hamas to stop rocket fire, criticizing the militants for giving Israel an excuse to attack.

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