Israelis kill successor to Hamas leader

Rantisi had taken control from slain predecessor

U.S. does not condemn attack

Arab League chief assails action as `state terrorism'

April 18, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSLAEM - The Israeli army killed Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz Rantisi last night. He had assumed control of the Palestinian militant group after the assassination of the organization's spiritual leader last month.

Rantisi, a 56-year-old pediatrician and university lecturer, died less than an hour after at least one missile fired from an Apache helicopter struck his white Subaru near his home in central Gaza City.

Two of his bodyguards died instantly. Witnesses said Rantisi ran from the car after it was hit, collapsed in the street and was rushed by ambulance to Shifa Hospital. He was wheeled into the emergency room amid a frantic crowd, his face and chest peppered with wounds, but died five minutes later, doctors said.

Rantisi, for years the public face of Hamas, declared himself the successor to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by Israel on March 22. Rantisi, who had a wife and six children, was a fiery, charismatic speaker regarded as one of the group's most uncompromising leaders. He opposed cease-fires and espoused the destruction of Israel.

The Israeli strike occurred hours after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed himself and an Israeli border police officer at the Erez Crossing, the main entrance to the Gaza Strip. But Israel's army had been targeting Rantisi for months.

The assassination also came in the same week that the Bush administration endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of Jewish settlements there. Palestinians were enraged by Bush's endorsement of the plan, which also calls for making permanent some Israeli settlements in the West Bank and denies Palestinian refugees from the fighting in 1947 and 1948 the right of return to Israel. Sharon has asked his Likud Party to endorse the proposal in a special party vote May 2.

U.S. urges restraint

In Washington, American officials did not condemn the killing and reiterated past statements that Israel has the right to defend itself. But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the United States "is gravely concerned for regional peace and stability. The United States strongly urges Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its actions, and we again urge all parties to exercise maximum restraint at this time."

In Cairo, Egypt, Arab League chief Amr Mussa condemned what he said was "state terrorism" by Israel.

Israeli officials portrayed Rantisi as a "mastermind of terror" and vowed yesterday to continue to eradicate militant leaders based in the Gaza Strip, even as they prepare to withdraw the army and evacuate the 7,500 Jewish settlers who live amid 1.3 million Palestinians.

"Today we brought to justice one of the most extreme heads of Hamas, who had called for a total war against Jews and Israel," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon. "We will disengage from Gaza, but we will not disengage from fighting terrorism."

In interviews, Rantisi had always distinguished himself as a political leader unconnected to the militant wing. But Israeli leaders considered Rantisi, who escaped an assassination attempt last year, as a key planner of the group's more than 100 suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Militants targeted

Gissin said that the Israeli army will "reach terrorists any and every place they are. There will be no sanctuary for any of them." He said that the eradication of militants helps the Palestinian Authority regain control and return to negotiations.

But Palestinian leaders accused Sharon of destroying the ruling authority, headed by Yasser Arafat, by radicalizing Palestinian society and making it impossible for moderate factions to exert their influence.

"This will just add fire to the situation, and the Israeli government will be fully responsible for the violence that follows," said Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat, a chief negotiator. "I think that Sharon's end game is to destroy the Palestinian Authority and the peace process and open the gates for move violence so he can show the Americans that he is part of their war on terror."

The scene in Gaza was similar to that following other Israeli strikes. Thousands of Palestinians pumping fists in the air swarmed around the remains of Rantisi's four-door sedan, shouting threats against Israel and declaring their solidarity with Hamas.

A Hamas leader, Ismael Haniya, told reporters at Shifa Hospital, "Israel will regret this." Haniya, one of the few publicly known leaders of Hamas still alive, said that Rantisi's "blood will not be wasted. It is our fate in Hamas, and it is our fate as Palestinians that we die as martyrs."

Leadership void

Rantisi's death leaves Hamas with a leadership void. Three of its top leaders, including Yassin, have been killed by the Israelis, leaving its top organizational structure in disarray and its local leadership in doubt.

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