Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The Israeli army said Tuesday it was worried that the Lebanese-based Hizballah terrorist organization was spreading its influence into the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Palestinian Authority.
Earlier, Israeli helicopters fired air-to-ground rockets at a car carrying a senior Palestinian Authority security officer, whom Israel accused of leading a Hizballah-linked terrorist cell in Gaza.
Masood Ayad, a 49-year-old lieutenant-colonel in PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's elite Force 17 unit, had been involved in firing mortar bombs at homes in the Jewish community of Netzarim and in planning the kidnap of Israeli soldiers, army spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ron Kitrey told a special briefing.
Hundreds of Palestinians gathered around the remains of the mangled car and chanted "Death to Israel."
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised the security forces for the strike and said it sent a "clear message that the long arm of the [Israeli army] will reach them and call them to account."
The killing of Masood was the latest in a series of controversial assassinations of suspected terrorist ringleaders.
Israel denies PA claims that it is pursuing a policy of assassination. But it says it considers the "surgical removal" of terrorist leaders as just one of its weapons in the war against terror.
The attack came as Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon moved closer to establishing a national unity government involving Barak's Labor faction. Sharon has pledged to restore security to Israel, at the same time as continuing negotiations with the PA.
"[Masood] took advantage of his serving in the Fatah Force 17 as a lieutenant-colonel," Kitrey told reporters in Jerusalem. "In addition, he was known as a smuggler of weapons and drugs including to terrorist organizations, and as such he was in Lebanon in the summer of 2000," he added.
Kitrey said Masood maintained his contacts with Hizballah officials in Lebanon and was enlisted by them to carry out attacks in Gaza Strip in their name.
Attacks he allegedly planned included the firing of mortar bombs at homes in Netzarim, an attack on a bus with anti-tank rifle grenades, a bomb attack at Netzarim, and a failed attempt to plant another bomb there. No one was injured in those attacks.
The Iranian-backed Hizballah organization fought a guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon and across the border for 18 years. When Israel unilaterally withdrew its troops from Lebanon in May last year, Hizballah took credit for having driven the Israelis out by force.
Hizballah leaders then called on Palestinians to adopt the same tactics to drive Israel out of the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip. Experts have said recently that Palestinians from the territories were receiving training and equipment from Hizballah.
Kitrey said Masood was "a man who wore two hats." This was the first time Israel had categorically identified a PA representative as also being associated with Hizballah. If it proves to be the beginning of a "new pattern" it would be worrisome, he said.
In recent months, tactics used by Hizballah have been seen in use in the disputed territories, such as the use of mortars and the combination of roadside explosions coupled with sniper fire.
Forming a new government
Meanwhile Likud and Labor have moved closer to a unity government, agreeing on a list of principles that omitted those topics on which the two sides did not agree, such as the uprooting of Jewish settlements in disputed territory, and recognition of the Palestinians' right to a state.
The sides did agree to pursue a settlement with the Palestinians, honor all previously-signed agreements, as long as they have been approved by the Knesset and were also honored by the PA.
The draft agreement recognizes the need for both sides to make painful concessions. And it says a unity government will also seek a permanent peace with Lebanon and Syria, based on international resolutions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is scheduled to visit the region next week, has added Damascus to his brief tour, raising speculations that he might carry a message to or from Jerusalem.
But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell would not bring any specific plan or formula to restart peace talks between Israel and the Syrians or Palestinians.
"He is going there to talk to people, to listen, to hear from them how they propose to deal with each other, how we might be helpful, and to understand things," Boucher said.
Talks between Israel and Syria deadlocked a year ago over the issue of disputed land.