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Dealing out destruction to Israel, but with a smile

Gaza City, June 11: With his natty suits, gold-rimmed glasses and winning smile, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantissi — a co-founder of the radical Islamic movement Hamas — doesn’t immediately appear to be an extremist.

He welcomes visitors into his Gaza City apartment and serves sweet Arabic coffee and candy with aplomb.

But Rantissi’s easy manner and flawless English only serve to polish his steely pronouncements on Israel to the world’s media: The Hamas hard-liner thinks it should be destroyed.

Yesterday, Israel attempted to kill him. An Apache helicopter fired several missiles at Rantissi, but missed. Just hours after he was treated for shrapnel wounds, Rantisi was back on television, taking extremism to the airwaves from his hospital bed.

“The Jews killed the prophets, and now they’re killing the Palestinian people,” he said in an interview yesterday with the satellite TV station al Jazeera. “We will continue our Jihad and our resistance until we throw the last Zionist criminal out of our land.”

Hamas has staged kidnappings, shootings and bombings in Israel since 1987, killing hundreds of people. In a telephone interview yesterday, Israeli government spokesperson Avi Pazner called Rantissi “an enemy of peace, a well-known terrorist and a danger to men who has poisoned the atmosphere for too long.”

Rantissi, 55, is second in influence in the Hamas movement to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, its spiritual leader.

He has insisted that he is only a political representative of Hamas and has no dealings with the group’s armed wing. But Pazner said Israel had intelligence that linked Rantissi to Palestinian attacks on Sunday that killed four Israeli soldiers. Pazner also said Israel was privy to recent Hamas deliberations in which Rantissi proved himself an “obstacle to peace.”

“There was a discussion within Hamas last week whether or not to accept the cease-fire sponsored by the Palestinian Prime Minister,” Pazner said. “Rantissi and his group prevailed in convincing the others that there should be no cease-fire and that the terror should go on.”

At his Gaza City apartment recently, Rantissi discussed Israel’s demands that Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas disarm Hamas and other militant groups to force an end to attacks against Israelis. Rantissi laughed derisively. “So the Israelis say, ‘You don’t use more than stones against us and we’ll use F-16s.’ Who can accept that'”

He said at the time that Hamas was considering Abbas’ cease-fire request. Rantissi said the group understood that Abbas was being squeezed by Israel and the Bush administration. “He’s like this,” Rantissi said, comparing Abbas to the thermos he held. “He’s under pressure.”

But days later, Rantissi vowed to continue the group’s assaults “until the liberation of the last centimetre of the land of Palestine.”

The fourth of 12 children, Rantissi was born in what would become the Israeli town of Yavneh in 1947, only months before the Jewish state was established. His family fled to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip called Khan Younis. Eventually he left to study medicine in Alexandria, Egypt. The experience was a crucible for Rantissi’s Islamic radicalism.

There he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a burgeoning fundamentalist Islamic movement that swept through West Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, countering secularist tendencies at the time. Members of the Brotherhood went on to form other radical and violent groups, such as Islamic Jihad and Gamaa al Islamiya.

When Rantissi returned to Gaza he worked as a paediatrician at the hospital in Khan Younis and in 1987 founded Hamas with five other men. The next year, Rantissi served his first major prison sentence, and upon his release in 1991 he and 415 other Palestinian militants were exiled to Lebanon.

Rantissi took charge of the group, which included leaders of Islamic Jihad and other extremist groups, and persuaded them to refuse to cross into Lebanon. He argued that doing so would have encouraged Israel to exile others. Instead, the group camped for two years in the buffer territory along the Israel-Lebanese border. Rantissi’s cutting diatribes against Israel drew intense media interest and he became internationally known as a spokesperson for the group. He also became one of the harshest critics of nascent peace talks between the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Yasser Arafat and Israeli President Yitzak Rabin.

By 1993, international pressure mounted to allow the exiles to return to Israel, and the government finally relented. Rantissi went straight back to jail for more than three years, but other exiles spearheaded new attacks on Israel. Hamas and other groups escalated their use of suicide bombings.

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