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Israel Tries to Kill Top Militant

Abdulaziz Rantisi of Hamas is only wounded but two others die in the Gaza Strip missile strike. Palestinian leader Abbas calls it 'a criminal act.'

June 11, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY -- Striking at a delicate moment in the just- revived Middle East peace process, Israeli attack helicopters Tuesday rained missiles on a vehicle carrying a senior Hamas leader, wounding him, killing a bodyguard and a bystander, and injuring dozens of other Palestinian passersby.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the attempt to kill Abdulaziz Rantisi, who has been the militant Islamic group's most visible and vocal critic of the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the road map. Israel said Rantisi was deeply involved in the planning of many attacks against Israelis; Hamas insists his role has been solely a political one.

The Israeli strike, which came six days after a summit attended by President Bush and the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, drew a swift U.S. rebuke. Bush said he was "deeply troubled" by the Israeli action and added that he believed it "does not contribute to the security of Israel."

The attack cast a chill on a fledgling peace process that has been tested since practically the last handshake at the summit. Both Sharon and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas face fiery domestic opposition to elements of the plan, which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state with permanent borders by 2005.

Hamas vowed vengeance, suggesting it would target Israeli political figures in retaliation. "An eye for an eye," Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahar said shortly after the attack. "And a politician for a politician."

Abbas -- who has been engaged in a knife's-edge balancing act as he seeks to win a cease-fire pledge from the militant groups while Israel presses him for a full- fledged crackdown against them -- could hardly conceal his dismay at news of the raid.

Abbas, 56, learned of the Israeli attack while attending a conference on the Palestinian economy at a hotel in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Besieged by journalists for comment, he turned on his heel and walked away without a word, his face set and grim.

"We consider this a criminal act and a terrorist operation, with all that this word means, because it was aimed at innocent civilians," he said later on Palestinian television.

Hours after the Israeli strike, there was more bloodshed in Gaza. Palestinian militants fired six homemade rockets, which landed harmlessly, toward the Israeli town of Sderot. At about the same time, Israeli tanks and helicopters fired toward a Palestinian neighborhood. Palestinian witnesses said three people -- two men and a teenage girl -- were killed, and about two dozen others wounded.

The strike against Rantisi put the Palestinian prime minister in an extremely difficult political position. He has been trying to defend himself against assertions by Hamas and other militant factions that he was too conciliatory at the summit. But he appears to have limited success with the Palestinian public.

Aides to the Palestinian prime minister called the Israeli strike a deliberate bid by Sharon to scuttle the peace process.

"This attack is aimed at destroying efforts by the Palestinian leadership to reach a truce and cease-fire," Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo said. He called on the Bush administration to "immediately intervene to put an end to this criminal plot by Sharon and his government."

Sharon, in an evening speech in the coastal city of Netanya, did not specifically mention the strike against Rantisi but struck a defiant note in the face of the U.S. criticism.

"We will fight the leaders of terror organizations who instigate, finance and dispatch terrorists setting out to murder Jews," he said.

Rantisi was targeted two days after he went before the cameras to praise an ambush by Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip that left four Israeli soldiers dead. He called the joint attack proof that Palestinian armed factions were united in their opposition to the peace plan and pledged that more attacks would follow.

For Israel, it seemed, Rantisi's justification and apparent intimate knowledge of the attack's planning were the last straw.

"The reason and the timing are very simple," said an Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He said in his own words that Hamas will attack Israelis wherever they are.... Basically we had no other option than to act against Hamas."

In the course of the intifada, Israel has killed, or tried to kill, dozens of militant leaders. But the targeting of Palestinian political figures is a relative rarity, with Israel saying it only goes after those with "blood on their hands."

Palestinian extremists have succeeded in killing one high-ranking Israeli politician. In October 2001, Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi was gunned down in an attack that was said to be in retaliation for Israel's assassination of a senior Palestinian political leader.

Reuven Paz, an analyst who formerly worked in Israeli domestic intelligence, said an attack like the one against Rantisi would have to have been personally approved by Sharon.

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