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Hamas Selects New Leader in Secret After Israel Kills Rantisi

Rantisi — killed in an Israeli helicopter missile strike in Gaza on Saturday night — is the second Hamas leader assassinated in less than a month. Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed in a March 22 missile attack.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the army for Saturday’s air strike on Rantisi, saying Israel would keep hunting militants.

“We will never allow the murderers of today, or those of tomorrow, to hurt our people. Those who dare to do so will be struck down,” he said in a speech, according to Reuters.

Mourners carried Rantisi’s body on a stretcher draped in a green Hamas flag on Sunday, and chanted, “We will sacrifice our souls and blood for Rantisi.”

Rantisi, Hamas’ hardline leader in Gaza, died when two missiles slammed into his car hours after a suicide bomber killed an Israeli soldier at northern Gaza’s Erez crossing, Reuters reported.

Hamas sources told news outlets that they had appointed a replacement for Rantisi but would not identify him. Israel’s Army Radio reported that Rantisi’s second-in-command, Mahmoud Zahar, was selected to oversee the group in Gaza, but Hamas refused to confirm the report, according to the Associated Press. The most prominent Hamas leaders are now living abroad.

Rantisi was buried on Sunday in Gaza’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.

Sharon told his cabinet the killing was part of a strategy to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.

Departing from past U.S. administrations, President Bush last week endorsed Sharon’s plan to remove all 21 Jewish settlement from Gaza and withdraw from a few settlements in the occupied West Bank. Critics said the endorsement detracts from the “road map” to peace brokered by the United Nations, European Union, Russia and United States and pre-empted political negotiations on several critical issues.

Many Palestinians blamed the assassination of Rantisi in part on the United States.

“The Palestinian government considers this Israeli terrorist campaign to be a direct result of American encouragement and the total American bias in favor of the Israeli government,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, according to The New York Times.

U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice denied that President Bush had given Israel permission to assassinate Rantisi. She said Israel has a right to defend itself but should “take into account the consequences of anything that it does.”

Following Rantisi’s funeral, two Israeli Arabs opened fire on a patrol vehicle in Israel’s northern Galilee region. Israeli police said it returned fire, wounding the two men. Israeli Arabs, though generally sympathetic to Palestinians, have rarely taken up arms against Israeli forces.

Palestinian militants fired four rockets in the Gaza Strip, wounding an Israeli in the Jewish settlement of Nissanit, the Israeli army said, according to Reuters.

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