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Another Hamas Leader assassinated

By Donald Macintyre

18 April 2004
The Independent

Israel assassinated the Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in a missile attack last night on his car only three weeks after killing the man he replaced as the leader of the militant faction in Gaza, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

In a move which provoked fresh fury from Palestinian leaders and Hamas supporters in Gaza ­ and calls for revenge by militants ­ the assassination appeared to be the first dramatic fulfilment of Israel's stated intention, in the wake of Yassin's death, to wipe out Hamas's entire top leadership.

There was immediate condemnation of the killing from Britain and the United States. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said: "The British Government have made it repeatedly clear that so-called 'targeted assassinations' of this kind are unlawful, unjustified and counter-productive." In Washington, a US State Department official was more muted, urging Israel to consider the consequences of its actions.

He denied that the pro-Israeli shift in US policy last week had tacitly given the "green light" for the strike.

But the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ahmad Qureia, said: "The Palestinian cabinet considers this terrorist Israeli campaign is a direct result of American encouragement and the complete bias of the American administration towards the Israeli government."

And in Gaza last night, Wesam Afifeh, editor of al-Risala newspaper, a pro-Hamas weekly, acknowledged that the killing was a "big shock" to Hamas and predicted that the faction might now seek an underground leadership to limit targeted attacks on key figures.

The death of Rantisi in hospital after he was pulled from his wrecked car introduces a new unpredictable element into the Israel-Palestine conflict only four days after Palestinians and others around the world criticised President George Bush for accepting the terms attached to Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip over the next 18 months.

The Israeli army said last night that it had killed a man who had been "personally responsible for killing scores of Israelis in numerous terror attacks". Gideon Levy, a minister, said: "We have to continue this war, every time and every place. And this story shows how the army can get everywhere."

Saab Erekat, leader of the Palestinian Authority negotiating team, said: "We do not want revenge, retaliation, or assassinations. We need to end the cycle of violence." But Mr Erekat said the danger was that the killing of Rantisi would lead to "more chaos, extremism and violence" and suggested that Yasser Arafat could be an Israeli target. Saying that a major international effort was needed to restart negotiation, he added: "This is not the way. The only way is peaceful negotiations to end the occupation."

The two other men in the car, believed to include Akram Nassar, 35, Rantisi's personal bodyguard, were also killed. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the other was Rantisi's son Mohammed. Witnesses said at least five pedestrians had been injured and that one badly burned body had been dragged from the charred vehicle. Angry Palestinians marched through Gaza City carrying pieces of Rantisi's car shouting "revenge, revenge".

Rantisi was a hardliner even by Hamas standards who unlike some other members never compromised on the faction's stated position of seeing the elimination of Israel in favour of a single Palestinian state. He was also considered less pragmatic than Sheikh Yassin himself.

An attempt on his life ­ criticised at the time by President Bush ­ was made last June. In a retaliatory attack the next day, 16 Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.

Vengeance was promised after the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, but it has not materialised, although Israeli forces say they have foiled several suicide-bomb attacks.

Earlier yesterday, however, an Israeli border policeman was killed and three other Israelis wounded when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up at the Erez crossing into Gaza ­ the third such attack to have taken place there since January.

The assassination could provide a further boost to Mr Sharon's already much improved chances of persuading the hard right of the Likud membership to overcome their scepticism and vote for his disengagement plan in a party referendum on 2 May.