Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's Extreme Measures ; Assassination of Hamas's Leader Saturday Deepens Mideast Rifts

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Israel's Extreme Measures ; Assassination of Hamas's Leader Saturday Deepens Mideast Rifts

Article excerpt

Bereaved Palestinians threw purple flowers on the body of assassinated Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantissi Sunday as Arab leaders blamed the US, burying hopes for any near-term prospects for a negotiated solution with Israel.

An Israeli helicopter strike on the Hamas leader's car Saturday night in Gaza City touched off cries for vengeance and scenes of a mass funeral similar to those a month ago when Israel assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin. But the political environment is different this time.

The Middle East peace equation underwent a sea change last week when President Bush reversed decades of US policy. Last Wednesday, he endorsed a permanent Israeli hold on parts of the occupied West Bank and backed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip that leaves the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the sidelines.

Israeli analysts say the combination of the American backing and the assassination translates into a political resuscitation for Mr. Sharon, who faces possible indictment on corruption charges in the coming weeks. But Palestinian analysts say the events also close the door on negotiations and sharpen local support for Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian militant groups.

"There is no political alternative for Palestinians today," says Hafez Barghouthi, editor of the PA's al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper. "We will see more blood. That is the only future for this area when there is a prime minister like Sharon and a president like Bush."

Israel, however, said the killing of Mr. Rantissi, who had formally assumed leadership of Hamas in Gaza after Mr. Yassin's assassination, was a major blow to terrorism conducted by the group. Hamas is sworn to replace Israel with an Islamic state through armed struggle and has carried out a devastating suicide bombing campaign during the past 3-1/2 years. "Rantissi was a designer of Hamas's terror policy, he inspired suicide attacks and called for the destruction of Israel," said Israel Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. "He did not hesitate to call for terror against the Americans in Iraq and he was a pediatrician who was involved in killing children."

But to the tens of thousands of Gazans who turned out to mourn him Sunday, Rantissi, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in June, was a symbol of resistance.

"They succeeded in killing Rantissi, but we have hundreds of Rantissis," a perspiring man wearing the green head band of Hamas yelled into a megaphone. "All the Palestinians are Rantissi."

The man told the crowd that Hamas's Izzedin al-Qassam military wing has developed a new rocket that fragments into small shrapnel pieces. "Today is a day of anger and revenge," he said.

"Who is more powerful, Israel or God?" he asked the crowd. "God," the crowd roared back.

The man asked the crowd to chant louder so that exiled Hamas leaders could hear them via a phone link. …

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