Israel braces for terrorism after killing of Hamas figure

JERUSALEM — Israeli security forces have gone on heightened alert after Hamas threatened to avenge the death of a senior figure in the militant Islamic organization.

The body of Mohiyedine Sharif was identified by Palestinian police Wednesday, several days after it had been found next to a bombed vehicle near the Palestinian-controlled town of Ramallah in the West Bank.

Israel denied any involvement in the killing of Sharif, who had topped its list of wanted Hamas terrorists for his involvement in planning several suicide bombings.

"We took no part in this incident, despite the rumors which have been spread," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a news conference Wednesday. "We don't know what happened exactly."

Palestinian security officials had initially reported Sunday that the car explosion was apparently a "work accident" involving Hamas terrorists planning to carry out an attack inside Israel. Palestinian officials could not identify at first the body of the man killed in the blast.

But Palestinian security officials informed their Israeli counterparts of their suspicions that the body was Sharif, and Israeli security forces asked that DNA testing be conducted.

A Palestinian security official, citing a pathologist's report, said Sharif had been shot in the chest, and then placed by the car.

Sharif, 32, was seen as the heir to Yehiya Ayash, who was killed by a booby-trapped cellular phone in Gaza Strip two years ago. Ayash had topped Israel's most-wanted list for masterminding a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of Israelis.

Ayash's death set off a new wave of suicide bombings in early 1996.

The Hamas spokesman, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, declared Wednesday that the organization would avenge the killing of Sharif.

Hamas threats raised concerns of possible terrorist attacks over the Passover holiday.

The head of Israeli's General Security Service, Ami Ayalon, was slated to meet with Palestinian security officials to discuss the latest developments.

Palestinian Authority officials denounced Sharif's murder and suggested that Israeli security forces were behind the slaying.

But Israeli security officials rejected charges of Israeli involvement in Sharif's death. They also said it was an embarrassment for the Palestinian Authority that a bomb-making factory was operating in areas under its control.

Some Israeli officials, however, welcomed Sharif's death.

"This is someone who deserved to die," said Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh. "I don't know whether gratitude should be expressed in Hebrew or Arabic."