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Hamas Says It Won't Target Americans

Countering a statement that blamed the U.S. in Yassin's death, leaders say they intend to attack only Israelis, perhaps including Sharon.

March 25, 2004|Mark Magnier and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

GAZA CITY — Hamas will not target Americans, despite a veiled threat issued this week after Israeli forces killed a top cleric, senior leaders of the Palestinian militant group said Wednesday. But one Hamas official warned that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was in the group's sights.

"The Israelis, those occupying our land, are targets, but no one from Hamas will target Americans," Abdulaziz Rantisi said Wednesday as he sat in a tent with hundreds of other Palestinians marking the third and final day of mourning for Sheik Ahmed Yassin. On Tuesday, Rantisi was named to replace Yassin as Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip, the group's top post.

Mahmoud Zahar, another senior figure, said the movement has its differences with the U.S. administration but not with the American people. "Considering American targets is not our style, and anyway we don't have the capacity," he said.

On Monday, the military wing of Hamas issued a statement charging U.S. complicity in Yassin's death. "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without the consent of the terrorist American administration, and it must bear responsibility for this crime," the statement said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation for this crime."

U.S. officials have denied advance knowledge of the assassination.

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' exiled political chief in Damascus, Syria, was quoted Wednesday by the pan-Arab Al Hayat daily newspaper as saying Yassin's slaying has given Hamas the right to "hunt down the big Zionist heads," including Sharon. But the final decision would be up to Hamas' military wing, he added.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis since the group was founded in the late 1980s.

Israeli opposition leader Shimon Peres, meanwhile, urged his government to stop its "targeted killings" of senior Palestinian militants, saying these only galvanized animosity toward Israel.

"We don't need a war of leader assassinations," he said. "Killing terrorists is not enough. This will not in itself prevent terror."

His message was echoed by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who said he opposed attacks on ordinary Israelis to avenge Yassin's death.

"I am against any attacks on civilians, on Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians," he told reporters at his battered headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "We want peace, and we seek peace in the land of peace, the Holy Land."

In other developments Wednesday:

* A Palestinian boy was arrested near Nablus, in the West Bank, wearing an explosives-laden vest as he approached an Israeli army checkpoint. A military spokesman said investigators believed the boy, whose age was variously given as 12, 14 or 16, meant to detonate the vest at the site, where about 200 Palestinians were waiting to cross.

An officer at the scene told Army Radio that the boy had received about $25 to carry out the attack. Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group tied to Arafat's Fatah movement, later claimed responsibility for the foiled attack, Associated Press reported.

The Israeli group Physicians for Human Rights issued a statement condemning the use of children to carry out suicide attacks. "For too long, children on both sides have been victims of this armed conflict, due to the disregard toward their lives on both sides," the statement said.

Last week, soldiers at the same roadblock discovered a 10-year-old boy carrying an explosive device. Soldiers released the boy after they determined that he didn't know what he was carrying through the checkpoint.

* At the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, there was a noticeable lack of festivities -- or Egyptian dignitaries -- at a special session marking the 25th anniversary of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord. Only 20 members of the legislative body attended the ceremony after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's announcement Monday that representatives from his country would not attend in protest over Yassin's assassination.

At the anniversary ceremony, Sharon called for more dialogue between the two countries to further peace in the region. "Israel is prepared to march toward peace with its neighbors, with courage and determination, just as it did 25 years ago with Egypt," he said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher accused Israel of trying to scuttle peace efforts in the Middle East.

* Britain said it would freeze bank accounts held by five Hamas officials, including Rantisi. But analysts in Gaza said this was a largely symbolic gesture given that Hamas tends to keep very little in the accounts.

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