Israel's extreme measures

Assassination of Hamas's leader Saturday deepens Mideast rifts.

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. "What is your ultimate aspiration?" he asked. "Death in the path of God," yelled the crowd.

Arabs burned Israeli and American flags and called for vengeance in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon and on university campuses in Egypt and Kuwait. Meanwhile, France, Greece, Iran, Japan, and Turkey were among governments that condemned Israel's killing of Rantissi.

Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud said in a statement: "Israel ... has received encouragement from Washington to prevent Palestinians from going back to their homes, and today it is killing those who stayed at home," according to Reuters.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told "Fox News Sunday" that the US had not approved the attack nor known it was going to happen. The Bush administration didn't criticize the killing, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks and urging Palestinians to use restraint in responding.

Mr. Arafat sought to accommodate the enraged street sentiment - demonstrations erupted throughout the West Bank and also in Amman and Cairo - by opening a mourning tent for Rantissi at his encircled headquarters in Ramallah.

"Arafat will not accept Sharon's disengagement plan," predicts Palestinian journalist Said Ghazali. "He will not tolerate looking to his own people as if he is surrendering. At the same time, he won't go too far with the militants. He will try to wait and keep his options open."

Mr. Barghouthi says that pro-American Palestinian politicians are now on the defensive. "How can they face their own people after Bush has canceled the right of return and recognized the settlements?" he asks. "The Americans will not be able to find any Palestinians to work with them."

The assassination enjoyed wide backing in Israel, with Labor party opposition leader Shimon Peres, who had opposed the killing of Yassin, throwing his weight behind it. It gave Sharon a further boost in his efforts to win a referendum slated for May 2 within his right-wing Likud party over the plan to pull out of Gaza while leaving it sealed off by the Israeli military by land, sea, and air.

"Likudniks are people who do not want to see Israel running away from Gaza with its tail between its legs," says Hannah Kim, political correspondent for Haaretz. "Assassinations help Sharon to say to Likud members, 'Yes, we are withdrawing, but we are not being vanquished. Look at how the Palestinians are mourning and counting their dead.' "

"The army has an arsenal of possible Gaza operations and more names of people to assassinate," she adds. "We should expect some more operations of this type."

Mohammed Ali contributed to this report from Gaza City.

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