Hamas Political Chief: PM Target for Assassination

Abdel Aziz Rantisi named new Hamas chief; Security sources: IDF to step up targeted attacks, go after entire Hamas leadership.

The head of the radical Islamic Hamas movement's political bureau, said Wednesday that Prime minister Ariel Sharon had become a target for assassination.

"Sharon has become a target for Palestinian resistance men and the al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas' armed wing) in retaliation for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin," Khaled Mashaal, based in Syria, told a Hamas Website.

Hamas has repeatedly threatened to target high-ranking Israeli officials such as Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz since the assassination early Monday of its spiritual leader and founder.

On Tuesday, Hamas distributed playing cards with the names of Israeli officials who would be targeted, similar to the card decks of officials in the regime of captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein issued by the United States.

Contrary to previous reports, Mashaal said Hamas had no intention of carrying out retaliatory attacks against international targets, but would focus on attacks against Israel.

Rantisi to head Hamas Abdel Aziz Rantisi on Tuesday became the new "general commander" of Hamas replacing slain Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel on Monday.

Defense chiefs decided during a five-hour meeting Monday to step up targeted attacks. Officials decided to go after the entire leadership without waiting for another attack by Hamas, according to security sources.

Immediately after claiming the mantle at the packed Yarmouk Stadium in Gaza, where thousands - including Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia - gathered to pay condolences to the Hamas leadership, the 57-year-old Rantisi went underground, fearing an Israeli attempt on his life.

Rantisi's selection as the new leader was announced by Ismail Haniye, who was bureau chief for Yassin. With Rantisi at his side, he said, "if Ahmed Yassin were alive he would choose Rantisi as his heir."

Later, Rantisi issued a statement saying "during Yassin's life I was elected as his deputy and in accordance with the regulations of the Hamas movement, the deputy is the heir to the leader in case of his death." The announcement of Rantisi's selection appeared on the Hamas web sites, including the site affiliated with its armed wing, the Azzadin al Qassam Brigades. The head of the Hamas politburo, Khaled Mashaal, also announced from Lebanon that Rantisi is Yassin's heir and will head "domestic" Hamas, meaning the Hamas movement inside Palestinian areas, particularly Gaza.

Rantisi, a medical doctor who was Hamas's chief spokesman, reiterated the Hamas pledge to avenge Yassin's assassination, Rantisi said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders "will never feel security or safety." He told the cheering crowd, "We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation."

"My dear people, you who were displaced by the Jews from your cities and villages, you will return to your villages and cities through fighting, because we don't have any other strategic option...Resistance is continuing," he said.

But while Rantisi claimed the mantle of leadership for Gaza, Mahmoud a Zahar, another - and more moderate - Hamas leader said that when the three-day mourning period for Yassin is over, Hamas plans internal democratic elections for a leadership that "will be known to the Palestinian people," but remain out of sight to avoid Israeli assassins.

Nonetheless, most of the leadership on Tuesday accepted Rantisi's role as the new leader, and the movement traditionally keeps its internal disputes out of view of the public eye, so it is not at all clear if elections will be held, as Zahar said.

In any case, he did not detail how the elections would take place and who were the candidates. But there was a hint of their plan in a statement made by Rantisi, who, like a Zahar, survived Israeli assassination attempt on him. On the day of Yassin's killing Rantisi said "from now on the Hamas will be led by a secret leadership, the 'next stage leaders,' which will lead the organization through this difficult period." But Rantisi gave no details about the nature of that leadership, nor how it would be chosen.

On Tuesday, however, a senior Hamas leader told Haaretz that the organization has no choice but to "go back to the secret manner of operation" that characterized it until the current intifada. "The Hamas cannot behave as if it is not threatened and even Sheikh Yassin ordered Jihad fighters who belong to the military wing to take precautions after the assassinations began. We have a responsibility toward the entire Palestinian people and the Hamas leadership belongs to the entire nation."

The senior source did not detail how the new leadership would operate but other sources said that the political leadership of the Hamas has decided to elect a political forum to serve as spokesmen for the organization toward the outside world, and at the same time elect an internal political forum that would remain secret and make all the significant decisions. Its membership would remain secret, to protect them. The secret forum would serve as a cadre in case other leaders are killed.

The method went into effect immediately after the failed assassination of Rantisi last June, when the Hamas leadership understood that it was as exposed as the military activists. The organization began to gradually expose to the media a new group of spokesmen in Gaza and the West Bank, to enable the founding members of the movement, like Yassin, Rantisi, Zahar, Ismail Henya and Ismail Abu Shnab (assassinated last year) to go into hiding without harming the movement.

The new spokesmen include senior officials who were until now exclusively devoted to the various activities in the movement's civilian arm, known as the Dawa - charities, and various social organizations that handle the families of casualties of the war.

Among the new figures are Ahmed Bahar, a resident of A Shati refugee camp, who has long been involved in the largest charity in Gaza, established by Yassin. He has been held under arrest in the past by Israel and mostly of his media efforts in the last few months have been aimed at forcing the PA to unfreeze millions of dollars of Hamas funds that the PA confiscated last August. Another familiar name is Nazar Rian, also a Shati resident, who heads several charities.

Relatively unknown is Said a Siam, a teacher from Sheikh Radwan, who has lately become a key spokesman for the movement in Gaza. All three began giving interviews to the local press in recent months, and lately have been speaking to the various Arab satellite stations. Another such new spokesman is Sheikh Adnan Asfur, a Nablus man who has begun speaking for the organization in the West Bank.

Mofaz: Israel to target other Hamas leaders Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday that other Hamas leaders would be targeted now that Israel has assassinated Yassin. "If we will continue, in a determined way, with our strikes against Hamas and other terror groups, with the means I outlined, including action against those leaders, we will bring more security to Israeli citizens," he said.

Defense chiefs have decided to try to kill the entire Hamas leadership, security sources said Tuesday, a day after Israel assassinated the sheikh.

The defense chiefs decided during a five-hour meeting Monday to step up targeted attacks, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. They said officials decided to go after the entire leadership without waiting for another attack by Hamas.

Public Security Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Tuesday that no Palestinian terror leader was immune from an Israeli attack.

"Anyone who is involved in the Gaza Strip or the West Bank or anywhere else in leading a terror group knows from yesterday there is no immunity," Likud MK Hanegbi told reporters. "Everyone is in our sights."

"There is no immunity to anyone. And that means anyone to the last person," he said.