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Hamas militant killed in Israeli helicopter attack in Gaza

Israeli armored vehicles mass near a border crossing into Gaza Thursday.
Israeli armored vehicles mass near a border crossing into Gaza Thursday.

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(CNN) -- Just hours after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon instructed forces to "take all necessary steps" against Hamas, an Israeli helicopter gunship late Thursday struck a donkey cart in southern Gaza, killing a Hamas militant and wounding three people nearby, Palestinian sources and witnesses said.

The cart was traveling in a residential neighborhood in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza when it was struck.

Witnesses said the Hamas member was traveling alone in the cart when it was struck by three rockets fired from an Israeli helicopter.

They said he was killed instantly. Three other people near the cart were wounded, witnesses and hospital sources said.

Palestinian security sources identified the man killed as Hamdi Khalaq, a member of Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam.

A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces said the Hamas militant was en route to carry out a mortar attack on a Jewish settlement. "The IDF thwarted a mortar shell attack," he said.

He said Khalaq had been working alongside another militant in preparing mortar attacks against Israel. The IDF spokesman said that in the past week, more than 50 mortars have been fired at Israel, including 14 Hamas-made Qassam rockets.

"The IDF will continue to act against Hamas and other terrorist organizations," he said.

Earlier Thursday, a Qassam rocket was fired from northern Gaza into Israel, landing in an industrial area of Askelon, Israeli authorities said. No one was wounded and there was no damage, they said.

Acts of terror
Gaza Strip

But it was the farthest north a Qassam rocket has ever struck in Israel.

The latest Israeli attack came shortly after the Palestinian Authority announced it had frozen the bank accounts of charities run by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Islamic organizations, prompting hundreds of Palestinians to protest in the streets of Gaza City.

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian internal security chief, said most of the 39 charities that had their assets frozen were administered by Hamas. The Palestinian Authority said it will now administer the funds. (Full story)

There was no immediate comment from Hamas officials on the day's developments. Most have gone underground since Israeli launched its stepped-up attacks against the group.

Fourth strike on Hamas

Thursday's missile strike marked the fourth targeted attack on Hamas in the past week -- an Israeli campaign that ratcheted up after last week's deadly bus bombing in Jerusalem. Eight members of the group have been killed in the Israeli strikes.

Tuesday, Israeli helicopter gunships fired at least three missiles at a car near a refugee camp north of Gaza City, killing an elderly man and wounding 23 bystanders, Palestinian hospital sources said.

The apparent target of the attack, Hamas member Khalid Massoud, ran from the car before it was hit near the entrance of the Jabaliya refugee camp, sources said. Another Hamas member, Wael Ikilan, escaped with him, sources said. Hospital sources said Massoud was "moderately wounded" and after being treated was taken away by other Hamas members.

On Sunday in Gaza, witnesses said four Hamas members ran into a vacant lot near a base housing members of Force 17, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's personal guard, when Israeli helicopter gunships fired at least two missiles, killing them.

Sources within Hamas identified the dead as Walid el Hams, Ahmed Eshtwi, Ahmed Abu Halala and Muhammad Abu Lubda. A fifth Hamas member was critically wounded, the sources said. Several bystanders received less serious injuries, hospital officials said.

Last Thursday, an Israeli missile strike killed Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab and two of his bodyguards, causing an outcry among Palestinians.

The latest round of strikes was launched by Israel after Palestinian militants carried out a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem August 19 that killed 21 people and injured more than 130 others.

Islamic Jihad and Hamas claimed responsibility. Those two groups and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades called off their cease-fire after the killing of Shanab, whom Hamas says was a moderate political leader not involved in terrorism -- an assertion that Israel adamantly disputes.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

Since the declaration of the end to the cease-fire, the Palestinian Authority has been under growing pressure to crack down on Palestinian militant groups.

Israeli bulldozers level orange grove

Soon after Thursday's rocket attack, a determined Sharon told reporters in Jerusalem, "I instructed the minister of defense to take all the necessary steps in order to avoid such actions -- those actions against Israel."

Palestinian officials said its security forces in northern Gaza detained Hamas militants accused of firing the Qassam rocket into Israel.

While the Palestinian security forces carried out the operation, stones were thrown and shots were fired, said a Palestinian security official. He said several Hamas militants were detained and no one was wounded.

Several hours later, two Israeli bulldozers guarded by tanks rolled into Gaza east of Beit Hanoun and began leveling an orange grove near the border.

An Israeli military source said the operation was intended to clear the area from which the Qassam rocket had been fired at Israel.

A Palestinian security official who witnessed the incident said he feared it was part of a larger Israeli incursion into Gaza, but the Israeli military source said the operation was limited.

The United States has been pressing the Palestinian Authority to fulfill its obligations under the so-called road map for Mideast peace, backed by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union.

The peace plan, which Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to, aims to end the violence and establish an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

In other actions against Palestinian militant groups, the Palestinian Authority has destroyed tunnels leading from Egypt to Gaza to stem the flow of arms to Palestinian militant groups.

Arafat on Wednesday called on Palestinian factions to commit to a cease-fire on Israeli targets. (Full story)

Violence in Nablus

In the West Bank city of Nablus, rioting broke out Thursday when Israeli forces attempted to enforce a curfew on parts of the city, Israeli and Palestinian sources said.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said at least 12 people were taken to hospitals after they were wounded in the fighting.

Palestinian sources said the Israeli troops moved in after several businesses in central Nablus attempted to open in violation of the curfew.

The Israeli army said curfews were imposed in parts of Nablus as well as the Balata refugee camp.

An army spokesman said rioters threw at least two explosive devices at Israeli troops, who then opened fire.

In addition, rioters tossed Molotov cocktails and stones at the troops, the army said. The troops responded using "crowd dispersal methods," the spokesman said.

In Balata, witnesses said Israeli troops were going house-to-house, in some cases breaking down doors, and conducting searches.

CNN Producers Sausan Ghosheh and Shira Medding in Jerusalem and Correspondent Matthew Chance and Producer Talal Abu Rahma in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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