The botched attack against Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the most high-profile political leader of the Islamic militant group to be targeted, came just as some Hamas leaders were saying they would consider talks with the Palestinian Authority on signing on to a truce with Israel. Hamas threatened revenge after the strike.
Outraged Palestinian Authority leaders accused Israel of trying to destroy the road map, a plan for Palestinian statehood by 2005 that was formally launched by President Bush with local leaders at the Aqaba summit last week.
Israeli officials declined comment.
At the same time, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger, Israel was moving ahead to remove illegal Jewish settlements, dismantling 10 uninhabited settlement outposts from West Bank hilltops, in compliance with the peace "road map." Five more were slated to be removed. The settlers are vowing to resist.
Cabinet Minister Avraham Poraz defended the move, saying Israel is a state of law, "and if something is done illegally, the government should act against it."
The missile strike threatened to unleash more attacks on Israelis, just as Egypt was trying to persuade Hamas to resume truce talks with the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
The attack on Rantisi also undercut the already shaky position of Abbas, who has been criticized at home for pledging to end the "armed intefadeh" while getting little in return from Israel.
The road map says Israel must refrain from actions that undermine trust, but does not specifically rule out the targeted killings of Palestinian militants.
However, Israel indicated after its acceptance of the road map last month that it would from now on reserve the practice of targeted killings to "ticking bomb" scenarios, as a last means of preventing an attack on Israelis.
Rantisi is a political leader of Hamas and a frequent spokesman for the group, but he has been careful to deny all knowledge of the actions of the military wing.
The attack on Rantisi began before noon Tuesday, when three Israeli Apache helicopter gunships appeared over the skies of Gaza City. In quick succession, they fired seven missiles toward Rantisi's Jeep Pajero as it was driving in a crowded thoroughfare, near a 16-floor apartment building.
The jeep burst into flames and was reduced to a scorched pile of metal.
A witness, bread vendor Salim Abdullah, 23, said the first missile missed Rantisi's car. "The doctor (Rantisi) ran from the car. One of the helicopters started firing machine guns at him while he was running. At the time, I was hiding next to a wall. I saw the doctor bleeding," said Abdullah, who was also injured.
Two others were killed, said Dr. Moawiya Hassanain, director of Shifa Hospital. Twenty-seven people were hurt, including Rantisi, his son and three of his bodyguards. The others were bystanders, including three who were in critical condition, Hassanain said.
Rantisi was injured in the right leg and underwent an operation. "Rantisi is suffering from torn arteries," said another Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon who was in the operating room. "He's in stable condition."
Thousands of Hamas supporters crowded the courtyard outside Shifa Hospital after the missile strike, chanting slogans against Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. "Abu Mazen, we want resistance," the crowded shouted.
Zahar said Hamas will retaliate. "Hamas' response will be like an earthquake," Zahar said. "The Palestinian people must throw the road map into the garbage and commit to the map of holy war."
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in bombings and shootings in the past 32 months of fighting. On Sunday, Hamas, along with two other militias, killed four Israeli soldiers in a shooting attack at an army outpost in Gaza.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Palestinian Cabinet minister, accused Israel of trying to destroy the peace plan by making it impossible for Abbas to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas. "This is an attack against the road map. This is an attack against George Bush," Abed Rabbo said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has only reluctantly accepted the three-stage prescription for Palestinian statehood by 2005. Sharon has said he would meet Israel's obligations under the road map, but has been evasive about full compliance with the first step — the dismantling of dozens of settlement outposts established in the West Bank since he took office March 2001.
The missile strike came just hours after Hamas leaders said they were considering resuming truce talks with Abbas. Only four days earlier, Hamas had said it was breaking off contacts with the Palestinian prime minister, accusing him of making too many concessions to Israel.
Egypt has been intensifying pressure on Palestinian militias to halt shooting and bombing attacks on Israelis. The Egyptian intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who presided over truce talks with Palestinian militias earlier this year, was to have met with Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, Palestinian officials said.
It was not clear whether Suleiman would still make the trip.
Under the Mideast peace plan, Palestinians must disarm and dismantle Palestinian militias. Abbas has said he would not use force against the militias under any circumstances because he wants to avoid civil war. However, at a news conference Monday, he also issued a veiled threat, telling the groups that those who walk away from truce talks will be responsible for the consequences.