GAZA (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian mourners cried for vengeance Sunday for Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, slain by Israeli missiles even as the Jewish state plans to quit the group’s Gaza stronghold.
The Hamas military wing pledged “100 retaliations” for Rantissi, 56, 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 Saturday’s helicopter strike on the firebrand Rantissi, Hamas’s 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 Middle East 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 pediatrician 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 Saturday 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.
Rantissi’s killing stoked Palestinian anger already high over President 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 3 1/2 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 told reporters. “Unfortunately the Israelis feel they are supported by the United States administration.”
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized Rantissi’s killing, saying it could lead to more violence in the Middle East. The European Union and Russia also condemned it.
The United Nations, the EU, Russia and the United States form a “Quartet” of peace brokers who have charted a “road map” to a Middle East settlement. But some European officials feel Bush’s statement last week sidelined the other group members.
The United States denied giving Israel the green light to go after Rantissi but refrained from condemning the assassination.
In his first public comments on the killing, Sharon said: “The policy is an effort on the one hand to progress on the diplomatic process and on the other to harm the terror organizations and those who lead them.”
Rantissi was viewed as particularly hard-line in a group that has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
In Gaza, troops killed a Palestinian gunman near a Jewish settlement, thwarting an attempted attack, the army said.
The Al-Aqsa Brigades faction said it had sent the militant as a first response to Rantissi’s 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.
But in a sharp departure from U.S. policy, Bush said Israel could not be expected to give up all land captured in 1967 and rejected any right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
Sharon presented his “disengagement plan” to his cabinet on Sunday. But a vote will be delayed until after a referendum on the pullout is held on May 2 among the 200,000 members of the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party.
Sharon won over influential Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and another previously doubtful cabinet member on Sunday, to give what could be crucial Likud support.
Palestinian leaders say Israel is really aiming to annex major Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Qurie wrote to world leaders Sunday urging them to restart Middle East peace talks, accusing the United States of breaking international law by making “concessions” in the name of the Palestinians.