GAZA CITY, March 23 — Two firebrand Hamas political leaders claimed the Palestinian organization’s top posts Tuesday, a day after its spiritual leader and one of its founders, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed in an Israeli missile strike here.
The two men, Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Khaled Meshal, are known for their frequent threats and verbal assaults against Israel. Both are considered to be aligned with the more extremist factions of the group, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, which has launched numerous suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis in the past 31/2 years and is listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
Rantisi, in an interview Tuesday night and in appearances before reporters and a large crowd of Hamas supporters at a soccer stadium here, said that under Hamas rules, he would ascend from serving as Yassin’s deputy to the leadership of the group in the Gaza Strip. Meshal, who is based in Damascus, the capital of Syria, would become “the first head” and world leader of Hamas, Rantisi said.
“Under Hamas’s covenant, Yassin was elected general leader of Hamas in Gaza and they elected me his deputy, and according to that, if he died or became a martyr, his deputy took his place,” Rantisi said. He said he would answer to Meshal, a senior Hamas political operative.
Rantisi is probably the most popular Hamas leader in Gaza, particularly with the group’s guerrilla fighters, and his leadership claim was unlikely to be contested, analysts said. Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas political leader who considered a moderate, shook hands with Rantisi at the soccer stadium and indicated his support for the new leadership.
Rantisi told thousands of supporters at the stadium that Hamas would strike Israel wherever possible, according to a translation of his remarks by the Reuters news agency.
“We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation,” Rantisi said. “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.”
Yassin, 67, an Islamic cleric and a quadriplegic, was killed by an Israeli missile strike Monday as he was being pushed home in his wheelchair after dawn prayers at a local mosque. Israeli leaders continued Tuesday to describe his killing as a legitimate act of self defense and vowed to continue to target militant leaders.
Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said that from now on, no Palestinian militant leader could sleep soundly, according to Reuters. “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,” Hanegbi said. “Everyone is in our sights.”
While Israeli officials described Yassin as a terrorist, to most Palestinians he was a moderate and benevolent religious figurehead, revered as a diehard opponent of Israel and a tireless advocate of Palestinian independence.
The moves by Meshal and Rantisi to assume Yassin’s responsibilities appeared to put control of Hamas in the hands of the group’s more hard-line elements and to confirm the widespread view here that no single Hamas leader has the charisma, stature or following to fill Yassin’s shoes.
“Yassin was the leader of all Hamas leaders” in the West Bank, Gaza and abroad, said Inad Falouji, a former top Hamas activist who broke away from the organization in the mid-1990s and is now an independent member of the Palestinian parliament. “No one man in Hamas can unify all these groups.”
Several analysts said Yassin was the only Hamas leader was capable of bridging the gap between the group’s armed wing — which plans and executes suicide bombings — and its more moderate and pragmatic political side.
“I’m afraid that after the assassination of Sheik Yassin, the military wing will dominate the political wing, contrary to the balance that we’ve seen between the two in the past,” said Palestinian journalist Hani Habib, a columnist with al-Ayyam newspaper. “Sheik Yassin kept that balance. The man could do things others could not.”
Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian parliament from Gaza who was the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator with Hamas in talks that led to a short-lived cease-fire last summer, said Yassin “was the overriding authority and the one who gave his blessing” to that deal, enabling it to be sealed.
At the same time, Falouji and several others said, the loss of Yassin was unlikely to doom Hamas to debilitating internal power struggles, because the organization is held together by bonds of religious and nationalist ideology.
“Hamas lost Sheik Yassin before for several years when he was put in jail by Israel, and it continued,” Falouji said. “Ideology keeps them together.”
Meshal, 46, is a trained physicist who lives in Damascus and has long been considered the senior leader of Hamas outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Rantisi, 54, a pediatrician who speaks fluent English and is one of the group’s most public figures, takes the reins in Gaza, the organization’s stronghold. Although a member of the Hamas political wing, Rantisi is regarded as a key intermediary with the group’s armed faction, called the Ezzedeem Kassam Brigade.
Both men have been the targets of Israeli assassination attempts. In September 1997, two undercover Mossad agents botched an attempt to kill Meshal in Jordan, an incident that led Israel to release Yassin from a prison where he was serving a life sentence. Last June, Rantisi barely escaped an Israeli missile strike on his car that seriously injured him and his son and killed his bodyguard and two bystanders.