Hamas today backed away from threats to attack American targets following Israel’s assassination of the militant Palestinian group’s founder.
However, the group is considering targeting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for assassination in retaliation for the killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
The Islamic group made veiled threats it would retaliate against the United States for Yassin’s killing. It has rarely attacked American targets during the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.
But Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a hard-liner named as Hamas’ new Gaza chief, said the group’s militant activities are aimed solely at Israel, which it has pledged to destroy and replace with an Islamic state.
“We are inside Palestinian land and acting only inside Palestinian land. We are resisting the occupation, nothing else,” Rantisi said in Gaza. “Our resistance will continue just inside our border, here inside our country.”
Rantisi also denied reports Hamas will now team-up with al-Qaida, calling it “Zionist propaganda.”
Hamas’ armed wing had said on Monday that US backing of Israel made Yassin’s assassination possible. “All the Muslims of the world will be honoured to join in on the retaliation for this crime,” a statement said.
President George Bush said after the statement that the United States takes the threat seriously and the State Department repeated a long-standing warning urging Americans not to travel to the Gaza Strip.
Hamas said today it wants to assassinate Sharon in retaliation for Yassin’s killing.
Khaled Mashaal, Hamas’ overall leader, who is based in Syria, said the group’s military wing would have to see whether its capabilities would allow it to kill Sharon.
“I hope that the holy warriors can retaliate against this awful crime by targeting the most prominent Zionist leaders … including Sharon,” Mashaal said. “I hope they can succeed.”
For its part, Israel has decided to target the entire Hamas leadership. Israel says Hamas has killed 377 Israelis in hundreds of attacks, including 52 suicide bombings, over the past three and a half years.
Rantisi, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt last June, said he was not concerned.
“It’s death by killing or cancer,” said Rantisi, a paediatrician. “If it’s cardiac arrest or an Apache (helicopter), I prefer to be killed by an Apache.”
Rantisi, 54, has appeared in public frequently since Yassin’s death, but always in large crowds that deter an Israeli attack.
He rejects even a temporary suspension of attacks on Israel.
Rantisi led about 1,000 people in noon prayers at a Gaza City football stadium today, where Hamas has organised mourning ceremonies. As he spoke to reporters afterward, he was surrounded by about 25 youths wearing green Hamas bandanas.
Meanwhile, several hundred women gathered in a mourning tent near Yassin’s home in a run-down Gaza City neighbourhood. Many wore Hamas headbands, and some wrapped themselves in long pieces of green Hamas flags. “Rantisi, give weapons to the women,” they chanted.
Fearing retaliation, Israel has gone on high alert since Yassin’s death. Security has been stepped up throughout the country, and malls, restaurants and buses have been empty as people remain close to home.
The Israeli military went on the offensive in Gaza and along the Lebanese border to prevent Palestinian attacks. A total of four Palestinian militants were killed in the fighting.