Hamas Vows Defiance, as It Picks New Leader

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Abdel Aziz Rantissi, a hardliner who rejects all compromise with Israel, was chosen as the new Hamas leader Tuesday, following the assassination of the group's founder by Israel.

Mr. Rantissi told the Associated Press that he emerged from secret elections as the overall chief of Hamas and was chosen to head the group's political bureau, the main decisionmaking body.

Until now, the political bureau was led by Khaled Mashaal, a Hamas operative based in Syria.

The announcement of Rantissi's election was made over loudspeaker during a gathering of tens of thousands of Hamas supporters at a soccer stadium in Gaza City, a day after Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin was assassinated by Israel.

Rantissi said that Hamas would press for more attacks against Israel. "We will be unified in the trenches of resistance," he said. "We will not surrender, we will never surrender to Israeli terror."

Followers of Sheikh Yassin and his Muslim militant group the swift transition shows that Hamas is not a cult of personality which will wither away now that its charismatic leader is dead. The wheelchair-bound cleric carved out a persona that blurred the lines between the bloody politics of suicide bombings and Islamic piety.

Israel has killed more than 20 Hamas operatives since last September. And Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared Tuesday that the Israeli military would try to eradicate the entire leadership of Hamas, whose suicide bombing have killed about 400 Israelis over the past three and a half years.

"Our leader is a system. It's a leadership by group, and anyone can represent the desires of the group," says Mahmoud Zahar, a senior official in Hamas and one of its founders, as he received a stream of visitors at a massive mourning in a tent here Tuesday. Nearby, official posters of Yassin offer sympathies from the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat, whose peace deals with Israel in the 1990s put him at odds with Hamas's rejection of all negotiations.

"There will be no vacuum in our organization," quips Mr. Zahar, a short, bearded man who maintains a medical practice and had been considered a strong candidate for ascendancy in Hamas. Israel, he suggests, overestimated the tactical damage they could do to Hamas by assassinating its chief leader. "Sheikh Yassin was absent for many years while he was in jail, and Hamas was able to continue in its activities," he says.

Israel has made it clear that the gloves are off. All Hamas leaders are targets for assassination, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has deemed. "Everyone is in our sights," Internal Security Minister Tsahi Hanegbi told reporters Tuesday. "There is no immunity for anyone."

But the death of Yassin, many analysts believe, will only serve to increase the lure of Hamas and serve as a de facto recruitment call for young Palestinians. …