NABLUS, West Bank — Israeli troops traded fire with Palestinian militants today, killing a top Hamas bombmaker and arresting three others before blowing up the apartment building where they were hiding. An Israeli soldier was killed and four others were wounded in the gunbattle.
The target of the raid was Mohammed Hanbali, the leader of the Islamic Hamas group's military wing in Nablus, the West Bank's largest city. The Israeli military said the 26-year-old planned suicide bombings that killed dozens of Israelis, recruited new members and trained them in making explosives.
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and standing on top of an elevator between the building's lower floors, Hanbali ambushed troops as they pried open doors to the elevator shaft above, on the fifth floor of the seven-story building. The shots killed an Israeli naval commando; soldiers returned fire, killing Hanbali.
Today's raid was the latest episode in Israel's military campaign to crush Palestinian militants, which intensified after a mid-August Hamas suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus that killed 22 people.
Israel has said it will not let up until Palestinian security forces start dismantling Hamas, Islamic Jihad and armed groups with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, in a speech to parliament Thursday, reiterated that he would not use force against the groups, only persuasion.
Abbas, weakened by a power struggle with Arafat, told parliament it must either back him or strip him of his post.
Legislators will meet twice in coming days to decide whether to hold a confidence vote that could topple the unpopular Abbas and deliver a major blow to an already troubled U.S.-backed peace plan.
In today's raid, troops with search dogs closed in on the seven-story apartment building where Hanbali was hiding out with three other Hamas members. As a battle erupted, gunmen in the building threw hand grenades at the troops, said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman. One soldier was killed and four others were wounded, one of them critically.
The army fired rockets at the building, collapsing the walls and ceilings of several floors, a security official said.
The building was blown up more than six hours after the gunbattle had ended, Feingold said, because the military believed some militants might have remained hiding on top floors. Feingold didn't know if additional fire had been directed at Israeli troops after the gunbattle ended.
Israeli troops had ordered about 100 residents to evacuate the structure, which housed 15 apartments, before the raid began. As it exploded, the building disappeared behind large brown clouds of dust and debris that covered the neighborhood.
Three Palestinians were arrested, the army said.
Hanbali's family said he was studying for a master's degree in industrial engineering at Nablus' An Najah University. He was a Hamas leader and his father is a well-known Islamic leader in the city.
Residents of the destroyed apartment building, some weeping, tried to salvage what they could from the rubble. Eleven families lived there.
"My family is in the street," said 8-year-old Baker Sobeh, searching for some school books in the debris. Soldiers arrested his father, and his mother and siblings stood in the street in their pajamas.
"I thought it would be just for a few minutes or a short while," said his mother, Mona, explaining why residents left the building with no belongings when soldiers ordered them out.
Hours after the building was destroyed, a woman in her 70s, Fatima Herzellah, couldn't bring herself to go. "I just want to be close to my place," she said through tears. Someone brought her a plastic chair to sit beside the ruins of the building where she shared an apartment with her son and his family.
An adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dore Gold, acknowledged that the destruction of the apartment building would bring hardships to the residents.
"Nonetheless, the war we are facing now has been imposed on us," Gold said. "Israel is not seeking to be in Nablus, but is only there because the area is a constant source of terror attacks on Israeli civilians."
A stalled U.S.-backed peace plan, called the "road map," calls on the Palestinians to dismantle militant groups. Israel says it will continue to strike at militants until the Palestinians do.
In his speech to parliament, Abbas said he must be given full power to carry out reforms required by the "road map" peace plan. If the demand is met, Abbas would have a stronger hand against militants carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Abbas stopped short of seeking a confidence vote but said he is leaving his future in parliament's hands.