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Middle East: Hamas Vows Revenge As Israel Criticized For Killing Al-Rantisi

Prague, 19 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Hamas yesterday threatened a "volcano of revenge" against Israel following the killing of its leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi.

The militant wing of Hamas yesterday distributed leaflets in Gaza City warning about "scores" of suicide-bomb attacks against Israeli targets to avenge al-Rantisi's death and the 22 March killing of his predecessor, Hamas founder and spiritual leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin.

Al-Rantisi was pronounced dead at a Gaza City hospital on the night of 17 April, soon after an ambulance evacuated him from the street where an Israeli missile -- fired from a helicopter -- had struck his car. There were scenes of chaos and anger as the ambulance drove away with al-Rantisi.

Meanwhile, as tens of thousands of Palestinians yesterday marched in al-Rantisi's funeral procession, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed to continue targeting what he called "the leaders of terrorist organizations." Israel's minister for parliamentary relations, Gideon Ezra, also warned that the Damascus-based politburo chief of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, will meet a fate identical to that of al-Rantisi.

The killing of both al-Rantisi and Yassin during the past month has left Mashaal as the movement's undisputed senior official. A Hamas statement yesterday said the group has appointed a successor to al-Rantisi but, at the request of Mashaal, did not reveal his identity.

There has been widespread international criticism of al-Rantisi's assassination. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed fears that it would "lead to further deterioration of an already distressing and fragile situation." Annan called on Israel to immediately end the practice of "extrajudicial killings." European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana called al-Rantisi's killing "unlawful." British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called it "unlawful, unjustified, and counterproductive."

Washington refrained from condemning Israel, saying it is gravely concerned about the situation in the Middle East and that Israel should "consider carefully the consequences of its actions." A White House statement called Hamas a terrorist organization and supported Israel's right to defend itself.

Palestinian cabinet minister Ghassan al-Khatib said the United States shares responsibility for al-Rantisi's death because of what he claimed was recent encouragement from U.S. President George W. Bush. "The timing of this Israeli assassination is a little bit suspicious because it comes immediately after the visit of Sharon to Washington," he said. "And we thought after this visit that the American encouragement of the right-wing tendencies and the settlers' tendencies in Israel will only increase the appetite of this right-wing government in Israel to proceed with its vicious circle of violence and continuous killing and extreme acts against the Palestinians."

Al-Khatib said al-Rantisi's death is certain to fuel more violence in the Mideast.

But Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled defended the killing of al-Rantisi, saying it was a legitimate act of self-defense. "Israel is compelled to continue fighting against terrorism, and [on 17 April] struck a mastermind of terrorism -- a man with blood on his hands, the head of the Hamas terrorist organization that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and has been continuing in recent weeks to increase its efforts to strike and to carry out suicide bombings against Israel," al-Khatib said. "As long as the Palestinian Authority does not lift a finger and fight terrorism, Israel will continue to have to do so itself."

The League of Arab States condemned al-Rantisi's killing as "an act of state terrorism" by Israel.