Hamas threatens Israel with attacks

Islamic group chooses new leader, guards name

April 19, 2004|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GAZA CITY - Fury filled the dusty streets here yesterday as tens of thousands of Palestinians mourned the death of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, killed a day earlier by an Israeli missile strike not far from his home.

Punctuated by chanting and occasional gunfire, the angry funeral procession was similar in size and tone to that of Rantisi's predecessor, Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who also was killed in an Israeli airstrike less than a month earlier.

Again, Hamas promised to strike hard at Israel in revenge, threatening "100 unique reprisals." Amid extraordinarily tight Israeli security after the Yassin assassination, the group did not carry out any successful attacks, spurring some to wonder if, in spite of its fiery rhetoric, it had lost some of its capability for organizing large-scale retaliation.

Hamas stalwarts insisted that Rantisi's killing would not hobble the organization, which is popular on the streets of the Gaza Strip for its schools and social-service programs.

A Hamas spokesman said the group had chosen a new leader to replace Rantisi - a 56-year- old physician known for his hard-line views toward Israel - but was keeping the identity secret for security reasons.

Mourners lashed out at Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and at President Bush and the United States. Many believed that the United States had approved the killing in advance, despite American denials.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, denied that Bush gave Sharon the go-ahead for the Rantisi killing during their White House meeting last week.

The killing appeared to strengthen Sharon's hand, giving him new momentum in the campaign to persuade members of his Likud Party to back his plan to evacuate all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four others in the West Bank. Sharon still faces opposition, but yesterday, he won the backing of two important swing votes: Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat.

Before withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials hope to weaken Hamas, and Israel promised after the Yassin assassination that it would target the entire Hamas leadership.

The killing of Rantisi set off demonstrations - some of them violent - across Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Arab countries. In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and critically wounded a 14-year-old Palestinian boy in a clash between stone throwers and soldiers. Late yesterday, police shot and wounded two Israeli Arabs in Israel's northern Galilee region. The police commander said the Arabs fired on a border police patrol.

On the streets of Gaza, a group of Palestinian women chanted "Revenge! Revenge!" Hamas fighters in military-style fatigues carried Rantisi's flag-wrapped body along a packed commercial street toward the city's largest mosque.

Joining the procession were squads of masked gunmen, toting Kalashnikov rifles, and young boys wearing the trademark green headband of Hamas, a movement founded by Yassin in 1987 that rejects Israel's existence.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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