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To paraphrase the old saying "Wine in, truth out," one could say about Abdel Aziz Rantisi: "Missile in, truth out." The Hamas leader, who escaped by the skin of his teeth from the bungled bombing mission of our Apaches last week, gnashed his teeth and promised that the armed struggle would continue until the last Jew was driven out. In his anger, he revealed the true goal of Hamas.

It's hard to believe that now, 55 years after the establishment of the state and decades after signing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, we are once again hearing threats of the kind made by Ahmed Shukeiry, secretary of the Arab League, 40 years ago. "We will send the Jews back where they came from," Shukeiry declared on French television at the time. Asked by the interviewer - and this is a scene I have never been able to forget - what plans he had for Jews who were born in Israel, Shukeiry drew a finger across his throat. In other words, we'll butcher them.

Unlike the PLO, which bills itself as a national liberation organization, Hamas is a fanatical religious terror network that is seeking to wipe out both Israel and secular Palestinian rule. In the attempt on Rantisi's life, one may disagree with the timing and the method, but there is no question that the heads of an organization which has been killing our people indiscriminately for well over a decade are terrorists who deserve to die.

Hamas was born in 1988, at the height of the first intifada, taking its cue from Khomeinism in Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas doesn't want conciliation or a return to 1967 borders. It will settle for nothing less than the obliteration of Israel. It's no accident that three of the most savage attacks on Israel's civilian population have taken place at the first signs of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians.

Since the Oslo Accords in 1993 and negotiations at Camp David, Hamas has dispatched 113 suicide bombers, 72 of them after September 2000. In this span of time, 271 Israelis have been killed and 1,803 wounded in Hamas suicide bombings. And these statistics say nothing of the countless attacks that were foiled. Apart from the harm to our economy and personal safety, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have lost their jobs in Israel. Unsurprisingly, the first attack after the Aqaba summit was carried out by Hamas at the Erez junction, on the very day Palestinian workers were allowed to return to work in Israel.

Rantisi once said that "the darker the night, the brighter the stars shine" - a Hamas version of the Marxist maxim that things will have to get a lot worse before they get better. This fusion of Islamic fundamentalism and Marxist theory is a lethal stew that threatens both the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Hamas is afraid of Sharon's public commitment to the road map being put to the test, because - perish the thought - he might actually keep his word. This organization has made it crystal clear that the term "cease-fire" doesn't appear in its dictionary.

By and large, Israel's policy has been to lay responsibility at the door of countries that provide a haven for Hamas. But the Palestinian Authority is not a country, and Arafat is not exactly rushing to lock horns with Hamas. Israel was wrong to wreak such havoc on the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. Now it is so weak, it couldn't confront Hamas if it wanted to. How many times have top PA officials whispered in our ears: Hamas is the culprit, so why are you walloping us and not them?

Striking at the leaders of Hamas is not only justified, but has done a good job of shaking them up. They are very sensitive when things touch them personally. It's a fact that these head honchos who send out suicide bombers are not volunteering their sons for the job.

In this terror organization that willfully murders women and children, there is no difference between a political leader and a military leader, in the same way that Osama bin Laden doesn't run his operations in two separate tracks. No suicide bombings or terror attacks are launched without the personal endorsement of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Rantisi and their ilk. These murders carry a message that is both political and military.

The government's determination to crack down on Hamas is legitimate as long as it is acceptable to Bush and strengthens Abu Mazen for the day that he lays down the law and confronts his own Altalena.