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Security sources acknowledged Sunday that Israel was involved in the assassination of a senior Hamas official in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Hamas vowed to strike Israeli targets in revenge for the killing of Iz a-Din al Sheikh Khalil in a car-bomb blast.

The government, however, issued no official statement regarding the assassination. A spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Israel had "no knowledge" of the car bomb.

For his part, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz, MK (Likud), said: "I can't confirm or deny [our involvement] but in principle, those who kill us should know they have no immunity, not in Israel, not in the territories, not in countries that give them shelter, including Syria."

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra told Channel 10: "I don't have information, and I can't confirm or deny it, [but] I'm not sorry it happened."

Khalil was expelled from Israel in 1992 as one of the 400 Hamas leaders taken to south Lebanon, but unlike many Hamas leaders who later returned, he remained overseas, "living in secrecy," as one of his relatives said yesterday.

Khalil was killed when a bomb, apparently planted under the driver's seat of his white SUV, exploded when he answered a call to his cellular phone as he was pulling out of his parking place in the Zahara neighborhood of Damascus at 10:45 yesterday morning. Other cars and surrounding had windows blown out.

Almost immediately, Hamas took to the air to blame Israel and issue threats of retaliation. At first, the organization's military wing warned that Israelis traveling outside Israel would be targeted by the organization. But later official Hamas web sites and spokesmen for the political wing retracted the threats, saying Hamas would stick to its policy of targeting Israelis only at home and in the territories.

In addition to the confusion inside the organization, the conflicting statements were indicative of the internal debate inside Hamas about its policy regarding foreign attacks. While Imad Alalami, now the Hamas representative in Iran, who was Khalil's direct boss in the Hamas hierarchy is in favor of foreign attacks, most of the leadership, including Khaled Mashal, want to stick to the policy set by Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, who narrowed the Hamas conflict with Israel to the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Up to yesterday Hamas officials did not believe Israel would take action against Hamas in Syria. Those against Hamas attacking foreign targets argued it would give Israel an excuse to conduct assassinations in Lebanon and Syria. Furthermore, foreign attacks would harm Hamas internationally, Yassin believed.

That internal Hamas debate is now likely to intensify, but the Yassin line is likely to win. And even if splinter factions do conduct attacks on foreign soil, Hamas is unlikely to claim responsibility.

Syria's national news service only began to carry reports of the bombing in the late afternoon, with a laconic statement identifying Khalil as "a Palestinian expelled by the occupation authorities to south Lebanon who did not return to the Palestinian areas."

No details were given of how he was killed or who was behind it, in the official Syrian press. However, a well-known Syrian political columnist, speaking to Al Jazeera television attacked Israel as "hysterical" but admitted Syria does not have many options for retaliation. Presumably, he said, Syria will respond in the diplomatic arena.

Israel's ability to infiltrate the Hamas leadership in Damascus is likely to further rattle the group after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor as Gaza leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in missile strikes earlier this year.

"They (Hamas leaders) have to take more precautions than they are doing now," said Ali Jarbawi, a Palestinian political science professor. "[The Israelis] are trying to reach Hamas everywhere."

Last week, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that in response to a request by Mossad chief Meir Dagan, an Arab intelligence service gave Israel information on Hamas leaders abroad, including where they live, what their hobbies were and even what food they eat.

Dagan made the request after the Be'er Sheva bombing on August 31 that killed 16 people. After that bombing, when Israeli saber-rattling pointed to Hamas in Damascus as the orchestrator of the Be'er Sheva attack, Syria reportedly told the top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashal, and another senior official, Imad al-Alami, to leave Damascus, their longtime base, according to a Palestinian close to the group.

Syrian officials told Mashal and al-Alami they should find safer territory, and Alami reportedly went to Iran while Mashal surfaced briefly in Cairo and then disappeared. Syria has officially denied it kicked out Mashal and other Hamas chiefs.