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Friday, 27 September, 2002, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Militant 'survives' Gaza attack
Hamas supporters at funeral
Thousands attended the dead militants' funerals
An Israeli missile attack in the Gaza Strip failed to kill a senior leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an Israeli cabinet minister has said.


The reports I received were that (Mr Deif) was indeed injured but did not suffer a life-threatening injury

Israeli minister Matan Vilnai

Science Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel army radio that Mohammad Deif - who heads the military wing of Hamas - was not seriously wounded in the attack, contradicting earlier claims.

The strike on a crowded area killed two of Mr Deif's bodyguards and wounded about 40 others, drawing criticism from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Later, thousands of Palestinians vowed revenge and fired shots in the air as they attended funerals for the two men in the southern town of Khan Yunis.

"We will come back to Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel for martyr operations", some chanted, saying they would continue suicide attacks "until the end of Israeli occupation".

Casualties fear

Israeli officials initially said Mr Deif had been killed in Thursday's missile strike in Gaza City - although this was denied by Palestinian sources.


The secretary-general is deeply concerned about the possible consequences of this attack

Fred Eckhard
Spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
"The reports I received from our people were that (Mr Deif) was indeed injured but did not suffer a life-threatening injury," Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Vilnai, a member of Israel's security cabinet, added that Mr Deif survived because Israel had not used powerful weapons for fear of causing too many civilian casualties.

"Had we [chosen other means], Deif along with dozens of innocent civilians would have been vapourised," he said.

Mr Deif's predecessor, Salah Shehada, was killed in July by a one-tonne bomb dropped on a neighbourhood of Gaza City.

The bombing, which caused the deaths of 14 other people, was condemned internationally.

Most wanted

The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Jerusalem says Israel's government and defence establishment will be sorely disappointed: Mr Deif was their most-wanted man.

Nicknamed the "Head of the Snake", he is held responsible for a number of devastating suicide bombings in the mid-1990s and for guiding Hamas's military strategy in the last two years.

Kofi Annan
Annan issued a firm statement
"Deif has constantly initiated and led attacks against Israel," Mr Vilnai said.

The strike occurred in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood - a Hamas stronghold in the north of Gaza City.

Mr Deif escaped a similar Israeli attack last year, when he jumped out of a car seconds before it was struck by a missile.

The UN secretary-general condemned Thursday's attack and called on Israel to halt military action in densely-populated areas.

Mr Annan's spokesman urged Israel to "conduct itself in a manner that is fully consistent with international humanitarian law".

Siege

Hamas has promised retaliation, and security forces across Israel are on high alert.

Israeli flag flying from building in Yasser Arafat's compound
An Israeli flag has been raised over Arafat's compound
Militants have killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings during the two-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Israel has responded with targeted attacks which have killed dozens of wanted Palestinians and also some bystanders.

Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended Israel's siege of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound.

He said wanted men holed up inside the compound are "the biggest terrorists that exist".

Israeli forces invaded and started destroying the compound on 19 September following two suicide bomb attacks in two days.

Meanwhile, reports from the West Bank say Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas member as he tried to flee when they went to arrest him.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Jerusalem
"Israel admits it missed the man it was aiming for"
Mark Regev, the Israeli Embassy in Washington
"There can be no doubt that this man is a legitimate target"
Khalil Shikaki, Center for Policy Research, Ramallah
"The chances are slim that we are able to go back to the peace process"

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27 Sep 02 | Middle East
26 Sep 02 | Middle East
26 Sep 02 | Middle East
24 Sep 02 | Middle East
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