Thousands March in Gaza at Rantisi Funeral

Sharon vows Israel will continue to target terror groups, while going ahead with pullout; Hamas appoints, but refuses to name, its new leader.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians were marching through the Gaza Strip on Sunday at the funeral procession for assassinated Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Three days of mourning have been declared in the Palestinian territories and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has set up a mourners' tent at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israeli security forces were on high alert on Sunday, fearing reprisals for the Saturday evening fatal helicopter attack on Rantisi's car in the Gaza Strip.

Security forces had over 50 warnings of possible attacks and are concerned of spontaneous attacks, similar to those carried out in the Tel Aviv-area following the March 22 assassination of Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The Hamas leadership has already appointed a new chief to replace Rantisi but has however decided to keep the name of its new leader a secret, fearing Israel will also target the new leader.

In Damascus, the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, issued a call to Hamas members in the Gaza Strip late Saturday, saying that a successor to Rantisi should be chosen immediately but his name should be withheld, due to concerns about future Israeli assassinations.

Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra, however, warned on Sunday that "the fate of Khaled Meshal is the fate of Rantisi. The minute we have the operational opportunity we will do this."

Hours after the Hamas leader was killed in an Israeli helicopter missile strike on his car Saturday evening in Gaza City, Hamas' armed wing issued a statement vowing "100 retaliations" that will shake "the criminal entity".

"Israel will regret this. Revenge is coming," said a senior Hamas leader at the Gaza hospital where Rantisi was pronounced dead.

"This blood will not be wasted. It is our fate in Hamas and it is our fate as Palestinians to die as martyrs. The battle will not weaken our determination or break our will," Ismail Haniya, who is possibly Rantisi's successor, told reporters.

Two other people - Rantisi's driver and one of his bodyguards - were also killed in the strike.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowed at the start of Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting that Israel's policy of disengaging from the Palestinian territories while battling terror organizations would continue.

"This policy of making an effort on the one hand to advance a political process and on the other hand to hit the terror organizations and their leaders will continue," Sharon said.

Army Radio quoted Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz as saying Sunday that Rantisi was a children's doctor who murdered children and his death with weaken Hamas.

The White House early Sunday declined to criticize the strike, saying instead that Israel "has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks" and urging restraint in the region.

Rantisi was one of the Hamas leaders at the top of Israel's target list, after the assassination last month of Hamas founder and leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The missile attack took place a block from Rantisi's house in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City. The dead were identified as bodyguard Akram Nissar and driver Ahmed El-Rara.

Rantisi's wife was also in the car, but her condition and location was not known, hospital sources and Hamas officials said.

Rantisi was taken to Gaza's Shifa Hospital in critical condition, his body pocked with bloody wounds, and rushed into emergency surgery, but he died five minutes after arriving at the hospital.

About 2,000 angry Palestinians marched through the streets carrying pieces of Rantisi's car shouting, "revenge, revenge." Shooting was heard in the center of Gaza City and people were chanting Rantisi's name.

The attack came several hours after a Border Policeman was killed and three other Israelis were wounded in a suicide bombing at the Erez Crossing in Gaza, which Hamas jointly claimed with the military wing of Fatah.

Rantisi was the newly-appointed head of the militant group in Gaza, following Yassin's assassination. He was one of the most hardline members of the militant movement, which rejects all compromise with Israel and calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Israel had previously tried to kill Rantisi on June 10 last year, when three Apache helicopters fired at least seven missiles toward his car in a crowded Gaza thoroughfare, reducing his vehicle to a scorched heap of metal. Rantisi escaped with a wound to the right leg. Two Palestinian bystanders were killed.

During the mourning period for Yassin, Rantisi was defiant about Israel's threats against him. "We will all die one day. Nothing will change. If by Apache or by cardiac arrest, I prefer Apache," he said.

Thousands of Palestinians poured into the streets of Gaza to protest the assassination and Hamas leaders vowed revenge. "This blood will not be wasted. It is our fate in Hamas and it is our fate as Palestinians to die as martyrs. The battle will not weaken our determination or break our will," Haniya told reporters.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia pointed a finger of blame at the U.S. "The Palestinian cabinet considers this terrorist Israeli campaign is a direct result of American encouragement and the complete bias of the American administration towards the Israeli government," he said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said, "Israel... today struck a mastermind of terrorism, with blood on his hands."

"We have to continue this war, every time and every place. And this story with Rantisi shows how the army can get everywhere. We have to continue, we have no other choice," said Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra.

Rantisi was born in 1947 in the village of Yavna near the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. During the War of Independence his family fled their home and settled in the Khan Yunis refugee camp. Rantisi, who attended school at the refugee camp, had 11 sisters and brothers. After completing his high school studies, he went on to study medicine in Egypt.

Rantisi returned to the Gaza Strip during the 1970s and worked as a pediatrician at the Naser Hospital in Khan Yunis.

The IDF first arrested Rantisi in 1983, for attempting to organize a boycott of tax payments to the Israeli civil administration authorities. He was arrested a second time in 1988, and was jailed for two and a half years for his involvement in Hamas.

Rantisi was placed in administrative detention in 1990, and was included in the 400 Hamas members who were deported to Lebanon in December of 1992.

Upon his return to the Strip, Rantisi was arrested numerous times by the Palestinian Authority. Recent attempts to arrest him were foiled by armed Hamas activists.