(IPS) JERUSALEM --
considers resuming the wave of assassinations against Palestinian resistance fighters, sending a clear threatening message to Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
"Sheik Yassin is marked for death, and he should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night," Israeli deputy defense minister Zeev Boin told Army Radio January 15, adding Yassin "deserves to die."
"And we will find him in the tunnels, and we will eliminate him," Boim said after senior Israeli security officials met to consider targeting senior Hamas officials, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Israel claims that the bombing attack at the main crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Israel that killed four Israelis and injured several others, came on the orders of Sheikh Yassin himself.
However, Hamas founder and leader denied any direct involvement in the attack, saying that "death threats do not frighten us, because we are in search of martyrdom."
The Israelis "know that Sheikh Yassin has nothing to do with military action, but they are seeking a pretext to reassure their people and cover up their failure," he was quoted by AFP as saying.
Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack, which the two groups said the operation was in response to the assassination of a military leader of the Islamic Jihad, December 25.
And Sheikh Yassin said that "resistance will escalate" against Israel until "it ends occupation of our land and homeland."
He already dodged one Israeli attempt to kill him in September. A warplane dropped a 250-kilogram bomb on a building where he and the rest of the top Hamas leadership were meeting in a single room, but Yassin escaped with just a small wound to his hand.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad declared in August 2003 an end to a temporary truce after Israeli forces assassinated Hamas senior political official Ismail Rantissi as part of a large wave targeting other resistance leaders.
In the meantime, Israel has sealed off the Gaza Strip, and one Israeli official said a "general closure" had been imposed, meaning no Palestinian laborers from Gaza would be permitted into Israel.
Palestinians dismissed the measure as a collective punishment.
Meanwhile, a number of shooting incidents took place in at the settlement of Kadim near Jenin, at Tul Karm, in the Katif Bloc, and in Rafah, and Israelis reported no injuries, Ha'aretz reported.
Settlements are deemed illegal by the international community, as their erection forced many Palestinians to live in refugee camps in or outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel also detained 14 Palestinians in the Jenin area, Tulkarem, and Ramallah, and destroyed the homes of two resistance fighters in Tul Karm refugee camp.
One house belonged to a Hamas activist who was slain by the Israeli soldiers last year, and the other to a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who was detained by Israeli troops a few days ago, Palestinian security sources told AFP.
Israeli armored vehicles also thrust into the Jenin refugee camp, sparking an exchange of fire between occupation troops and resistance fighters, the same sources said.
No injuries were reported, but the troops were carrying out searches in the camp, where a curfew was imposed.
According to military sources, nine Palestinians were also detained in the West Bank Thursday.
Two of them were brothers who have been actively campaigning against the separation wall and organized protests in the village of Budrus, near Ramallah, Palestinian sources said.
On the political front, international efforts continued to defuse the long-standing conflict.
Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, whose country has just assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union, held talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Tel Aviv and was due to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon later.
His visit comes as Israel is stepping up preparations for its defense at an upcoming hearing in the International Court of Justice -- February 23 -- over the legality of its controversial separation wall.
This also comes as the Israeli high court decided Thursday to discuss the legality of the controversial barrier within a month, according to the BBC news online.
The wall intrudes on swathes of Palestinian land, and was criticized by many international officials, including U.S. President George W. Bush who called it a "problem."
When he last visited the region in June last year, Cowen had opted to hold talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The Israeli leadership refuses to meet foreign diplomats who hold talks with Arafat, whom Sharon and the United States have tried to sideline.
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