Hamas Leader assassinated
By Donald Macintyre
18 April 2004
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
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.
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
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.