| Supporters chant anti-Israeli slogans during the funeral of Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi in Gaza City on Sunday. (Reuters)
Gaza, April 18 (Reuters): Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian mourners cried for vengeance today for Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, slain by Israeli missiles even as the Jewish state plans to quit the group’s Gaza stronghold.
In secret, Hamas named a new official to replace 56-year-old Rantissi — the second leader of the militant Muslim group to be assassinated by Israel in less than a month. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin died in a previous missile attack on March 22.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the army for yesterday’s helicopter strike on the firebrand Rantissi, Hamas’ political leader in Gaza, and pledged his country would continue to “fight terror”.
Sharon told his cabinet the killing was part of a dual strategy to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, while striking militants.
Rantissi’s body was carried aloft on a stretcher draped in a green Hamas flag. Mourners kissed his shrapnel-sliced face and others tossed flower petals onto the body. Fists shook at the sky in anger as four Israeli warplanes roared overhead.
“The blood of Yassin and Rantissi will not be wasted. Their blood will force the eruption of new volcanoes,” one militant cried. Thousands took up the refrain of revenge, chanting: “We will sacrifice our souls and blood for Rantissi.”
Rantissi, an Egyptian-trained paediatrician who was outspoken in support of violence against Israel, died when two missiles slammed into his car hours after a suicide bomber killed an Israeli soldier at northern Gaza’s Erez crossing.
Rantissi was buried today in Gaza’s Martyrs’ Cemetery.
Hamas has so far failed to carry out the kind of massive attack it had promised to avenge Yassin’s death.
Faced with an Israeli threat to wipe out all its leaders, Hamas said it had named Rantissi’s successor but would keep his identity secret. Palestinian sources speculated the new leader was either Mahmoud al-Zahar or Ismail Haniyah. Zahar said reaction for Rantissi and Yassin would come. “The Israelis are hiding, they are keeping off the streets. We will retaliate when the time is right,” he said.
Rantissi’s killing stoked Palestinian anger already high over President George W. Bush’s statement last week backing Sharon's pullout plan — which would also let Israel keep some West Bank land Palestinians want for an eventual state.
Protests against Rantissi’s assassination erupted across the West Bank in scenes that recalled the start of an uprising more than three-and-a-half years ago. Israeli troops used teargas and rubber bullets to drive back stone-throwers.
“It is no doubt a crime,” Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said. “Unfortunately the Israelis feel they are supported by the US administration.”
Qurie wrote to world leaders today urging them to restart West Asia peace talks, accusing the US of breaking international law by making “concessions” in the name of the Palestinians.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticised Rantissi’s killing, saying it could lead to more violence in West Asia. The European Union and Russia also condemned it. The UN, the EU, Russia and the US form a “quartet” of brokers who have charted a “road map” to peace in West Asia . But some European officials feel Bush’s statement last week sidelined the other group members.
The US denied giving Israel the green light to go after Rantissi but refrained from condemning the assassination.
Israel killed Rantissi three days after Sharon won Bush’s backing at the White House for his plan to withdraw from Gaza and four Jewish settlements in the West Bank by the end of 2005.
Sharon presented his “disengagement plan” to his cabinet today.