Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was killed last night in an Israeli helicopter strike in the Gaza Strip as he rode in his car not far from his house. The strike on Rantisi comes less than a month after he took over the running of Hamas in the Strip following the killing of the movement's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Israel Air Force helicopters fired missiles shortly before 9 P.M. at Rantisi's car, as it traveled on Al-Jalah Street in Gaza City. One of his guards and his driver were killed, and another 10 people were wounded. His driver was Ahmed Ghara, and the dead guard was named as Akram Nassar, 35. Rantisi's wife was reportedly in the vehicle but there were no reports about her condition.
Rantisi was taken to Gaza's Shifa Hospital in critical condition, his body pocked with bloody wounds, and he was rushed into emergency surgery, but he died five minutes after arriving at the hospital.
The missile attack came a block from Rantisi's house in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighborhood, about 100 meters from the grave of Yassin, who was assassinated on March 22.
Sources in Gaza City reported that hundreds of residents took to the streets after the strike, calling for revenge against Israel.
Rantisi, known as one of Hamas' most extreme leaders, was appointed its chief in Gaza immediately after Yassin's death.
The fatal IAF missile attack on Rantisi came a few hours after a Border Policeman was killed, and three other Israelis were wounded, in a suicide bombing at the Erez crossing in Gaza. Hamas, together with Fatah, claimed responsibility for the attack. Israeli security officials said last night that the Rantisi assassination was not a direct response to yesterday's attack at the Erez crossing. Rantisi's movements had been monitored for some time, and the IDF attacked him as soon as the opportunity arose to do so without causing collateral damage, the sources said.
Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said after the killing: "Israel will regret this. This blood will not be wasted. Revenge will come. Rantisi's death will not be in vain. Our fate as Hamas members, and as Palestinians, is to die as martyrs."
In Lebanon, another senior Hamas figure, Mohammed Nazal, vowed after the assassination that Hamas will continue with its struggle, despite attempts to stifle it. He blamed U.S. President George Bush for giving a "green light" to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assassinate his organization's leaders and other top Palestinian figures. Nazal declared: "We will respond to these crimes against us. We are not frightened by the assassinations."
Palestinian Authority figures vociferously denounced the assassination. PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia also cast blame on the U.S., saying "the Palestinian cabinet considers this terrorist Israeli campaign to be the direct result of American encouragement, and of the complete bias of the American administration in support of the Israeli government."
PA Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this Israeli crime of assassinating Dr. Rantisi. This is state terror, and the Israeli government is fully responsible for the consequences of this action. It's clear that the Palestinians need international defense and support now more than ever."
Israeli officials said the attack was justified and described Rantisi as a "terrorist mastermind."
In Damascus, the head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Meshal, issued a call to Hamas members in the Gaza Strip, saying that a successor to Rantisi should be chosen immediately but his name should be withheld, due to concerns about future Israeli assassinations.
Minister Gideon Ezra said Israel had to "continue this war, at every moment and in every place. And this story with Rantisi shows how the army can get everywhere. We have to continue. We have no other choice."
IDF sources last night said that selective assassinations will continue after the Rantisi killing. They stressed that all Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip, and also in countries that neighbor Israel, should know that their days are numbered.
The IDF last night went on high alert, in expectation of possible reprisal terror attacks. The Erez crossing was totally shut down. Starting this morning, and for an unspecified length of time, no Israelis (including journalists) are to be allowed into the Gaza Strip, due to concerns for their safety.
While there are not specific intelligence reports about terror plans, security officials yesterday expressed concern that terror groups might try to carry out attacks on Gaza Strip settlements.
Israeli security officials believe that Hamas' inability up to now to carry out a large-scale attack to avenge the death of Sheikh Yassin has embarrassed organization militants. Hamas, these Israeli officials believe, is in turmoil and crisis, facing operational and economic problems. "There is a gap right now between Hamas' motivation to act, and its practical ability to do so," they claim.