IDF forces operating in Nablus early Thursday morning gunned down Fadi Kafisha, 29, commander of Fatah's Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades in the northern West Bank city and a "terrorist mastermind" who military officials said was financed and directed by Hizbullah.
"He was a motor of terrorism," said commander of the the Shomron Brigade Col. Amir Braum of Kafisha. "He was the chief fugitive in Nablus, an explosives expert and responsible for many attacks, among them the attack at Jerusalem's French Hill in September 2004."
For the fighters of the Haruv Battalion, the killing of Kafisha represented a settling of personal accounts. In July, Haruv St. Sgt. Osher Damari was killed and several others wounded, including the son of Yair Naveh, the Central Command chief, when a large bomb, reportedly assembled by Kafisha, exploded near their patrol in Nablus.
Just after 2 a.m. Thursday morning, troops from the Haruv battalion entered the old city of Nablus on a routine operation when they were fired on by a group of Palestinian gunmen, according to military sources.
The soldiers shot back, killing two of the gunmen and wounding five others. One of the dead was later identified by troops as Kafisha, the man responsible for the death of their comrade.
Kafisha had narrowly escaped several attempts to capture or kill him, military sources said.
Palestinian sources contend that IDF troops ambushed the men as they walked in the city.
About 5,000 people participated in Kafisha's funeral procession, waving flags and vowing revenge against Israel. Militants from different factions - often at odds with each other - turned up for the funeral, firing bullets into the air.
IDF officials said Kafisha was the West Bank's chief bomb "engineer" who personally assembled dozens of explosive belts in the past year, many of which he signed with his name.
Kafisha actively recruited and dispatched suicide bombers and, according to military sources, in March 2006 soldiers manning the Beqoa checkpoint east of Nablus arrested a would-be suicide bomber wearing a belt with Kafisha's name all over it, literally.
According to IDF officials, in addition to "quality attacks" against Israeli civilians, Kafisha also stood behind several car bomb and shooting attacks against IDF forces operating in Nablus.
"Since the end of the war in the North, there has been an escalation in the activities of terror organizations in Nablus," Braum said. He speculated that the terror cells were emboldened by perceived successes of Hizbullah against an Israeli military machine that before may have seemed invincible.
Earlier in the week, Chief of the Israel Security Services, Yuval Diskin, said that following disengagement from the northern West Bank, the area had turned into a wild west of Islamic extremism.
Haruv is one of several infantry and armored units that operate nightly in Nablus, dubbed the "West Bank's terror capital."
"Wherever they may hide, if it's in the Casbah or in the refugee camps around the city, there is no safe place for terrorists that want to attack Israel," Haruv commander, Lt. Col Arik Hen, told reporters.
Meanwhile in the South, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip renewed rocket attacks that had largely stopped during Israel's war in the North, firing a barrage of six Kassam rockets into the western Negev Thursday morning.
Five rockets fell in Sderot and neighboring kibbutzim, and the sixth fell a few kilometers south of Ashkelon. One woman was treated for shock, and a garage was severely damaged.
Meanwhile, IDF soldiers who had been conducting an operation to uncover tunnels and explosives began withdrawing from the outskirts of Gaza City on Thursday, the army said.
The troops, which first raided the Shajaiyeh neighborhood late Saturday, killed a total of 20 Palestinians, the majority of whom were terrorists, in airstrikes and gun battles, Palestinian emergency officials said.
According to a report published by the Palestinian health ministry, 225 Palestinians have been killed, 62 of whom were children, since IDF forces returned to the Gaza Strip two months ago. Some 900 were wounded in the same timespan, according to the report.
The army began its wide-scale offensive in Gaza after Hamas-allied militants used a tunnel to sneak into Israel on June 25 and attack an army post, capturing Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit. The offensive also was intended to stop militant rocket attacks on Israel.
Also, the Popular Resistance Committees said Thursday that it blamed Israel for hiring hitmen to kill Rayid Nahal, the commander of its armed faction in the northern Gaza refugee camp of Ashati.
Nahal was gunned down in his car earlier Thursday when he was traveling with his wife in the Gaza Strip.