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Hamas Names Leader as Israel Vows More Strikes

March 24, 2004|Mark Magnier and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

GAZA CITY — Abdulaziz Rantisi, a pediatrician and senior Hamas official known for his hard-line views, was appointed Tuesday to the militant group's top post, putting him squarely in the cross hairs of Israel.

The 56-year-old Rantisi replaced Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated a day earlier by Israel. The Jewish state promised Tuesday to target Hamas officials and other Palestinian leaders, and hinted that the threat could extend to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

"I have no doubt that if we persist in our operations against Hamas and other terror organizations in all channels, including the operations against the leaders, we'll bring security for the citizens of Israel," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Israel Radio.

Internal Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel's hit list "includes everyone down to the very last among them, including those who appear on television and lash out telling us their intention to cut the prime minister's head off."

Hanegbi's remarks were an obvious reference to Rantisi, who in a fiery speech Monday warned that Hamas planned to launch reprisal attacks against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Cabinet for plotting Yassin's assassination.

In an interview before his promotion was made public, Rantisi downplayed Israel's latest threat to target senior Hamas figures.

"I am not afraid. I am looking to be martyred. Why? Because I believe the last day for me is not in the hands of Sharon but in the hands of Allah," he said.

Palestinian sources said Hamas' strategy was not likely to change under Rantisi because the organization's secretive leadership council -- which makes key decisions -- remains in place. Rantisi's ideology mirrors Yassin's: that Jews must withdraw from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and all of what is modern-day Israel, to make way for a Palestinian homeland.

"We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation," Rantisi told supporters in his first public remarks after his appointment. "My dear people, you who were displaced by the Jews from your villages and cities, you will return to your villages and cities through fighting, because we don't have any other strategic option."

Palestinian sources made it clear that Rantisi would serve as political leader and not assume Yassin's role as spiritual leader. Yassin, unlike Rantisi, was a Muslim cleric.

Rantisi's promotion from deputy political leader followed succession rules outlined in Hamas' constitution. Under the complex leadership structure, separate leaders oversee the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Palestinian constituencies abroad. The overall political chief is Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Syria. But the fact that the Gaza Strip is Hamas' stronghold signals that Rantisi has emerged as the group's top official.

Monday's missile attack on the 67-year-old Yassin -- slain as he left a mosque in his wheelchair after dawn prayers -- drew widespread international condemnation.

Israeli officials said Yassin was responsible for Hamas suicide bombings that have killed scores of Jews during the 3 1/2-year Palestinian uprising. They say a series of "targeted killings" of key Hamas figures last year resulted in a drop in suicide attacks because militants were driven into hiding. Yassin survived one of those strikes when a bomb was dropped on a building where he was meeting with other Hamas leaders.

The army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, suggested Tuesday that Israel's strikes could extend to Arafat and Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah group, which recently carried out a prisoner swap with Israel.

"I believe that their reactions [Monday] indicate that they understand that this is nearing them," he said.

Arafat, who has been confined by Israel to his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for two years, was said to have expressed concern that he might be targeted next.

Thousands of mourners in Gaza City attended an outdoor memorial service at dusty Yarmouk Stadium on the second of three days of mourning for Yassin. Men waited in long lines to pay their final respects to senior Hamas leaders and Yassin's family.

"With this assassination, you crossed every red line and started a new period of bloodshed that will never end," said a banner near the stadium entrance. "Israel will live with this bloodshed day and night."

On a blanket on the ground, a child sold postcards for 11 cents apiece of Palestinian insurgents killed in past attacks against Israel. Nearby, another vendor sold $1.20 CDs of recorded messages that suicide bombers made before their attacks. "Business is pretty good," said Abdullah Horani as he pointed to two of the hottest sellers. "We'll have a new one of Sheik Yassin in a couple of days."

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