GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel yesterday attempted to assassinate a leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who later vowed from his hospital bed “not to leave one Jew in Palestine.”
The attack, with missiles fired at Mr. Rantisi’s car from a helicopter, threatened to start a new cycle of violence and wreck a U.S.-backed peace effort.
The strike drew a reproach from President Bush, who said he was “deeply troubled” by the violence, and vows of vengeance from Hamas, which threatened more suicide bombings and attacks on Israeli political leaders.
The attack also was criticized by Britain, Russia and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called the action a setback to the U.S.-backed “road map” and urged Israel to exercise restraint.
Palestinian officials accused Israel of sabotaging their attempts to persuade Hamas and other terrorist groups to stop attacking Israelis. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas called the Israeli strike a “terrorist attack.” Egyptian mediators, however, planned to proceed with an attempt to secure a Hamas cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made clear that Israel would not restrain its troops from retaliating against militants, despite U.S. efforts to push forward the peace plan, inaugurated by Mr. Bush, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas last week.
Israel will “continue to fight the heads of the extremist terrorist organizations — those who initiated, those who fund and those who send terrorists to kill Jews,” Mr. Sharon said.
Hours after the attack on Mr. Rantisi, five homemade rockets fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel, the Israeli army said. Israeli helicopters and tanks responded by firing on an area in northern Gaza, killing three Palestinians, including a 16-year-old girl.
Two other Palestinians were killed yesterday by Israeli soldiers in southern Gaza.
Mr. Rantisi was the most high-profile Hamas leader to be targeted by Israel, and the violence threatened a return to the spiral of attack and retaliation that has ruined past peace plans.
In an interview with The Washington Times on Monday, Mr. Rantisi called the road map “a big mistake.” He praised a Palestinian attack on an Israeli checkpoint on Sunday in which four Israeli soldiers died.
“All Palestinian factions, both nationalist and Islamic, are with the resistance because no one supports the negotiations,” he said the day before yesterday’s attack.
In Washington, Mr. Bush said, “I am troubled by the recent Israeli helicopter-gunship attacks. I’m concerned that the attacks will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist attacks. I also don’t believe the attacks help the Israeli security.”
Israel insisted Mr. Rantisi is an “archterrorist” whom the Palestinians should have moved against earlier.
“He is an enemy of peace, an enemy of everyone who seeks peace in the Middle East,” Sharon aide Ranaan Gissin said. “We actually are saving the peace process by trying to take out such people.”
He accused Mr. Rantisi of plotting the attack by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades on Sunday in Gaza.
From his hospital bed, Mr. Rantisi told reporters he was on his way to visit a sick friend when a rocket hit his sport utility vehicle. He jumped out and threw himself on the ground as the car, driven by his son Ahmad, crashed into a wall, he said.
The car burst into flames and was reduced to a scorched pile of metal. One of Mr. Rantisi’s bodyguards and a female bystander were killed. Mr. Rantisi was hit by shrapnel in the leg, arm and chest. His son, three bodyguards and 22 bystanders also were wounded, doctors said.
Thousands of Hamas supporters crowded the courtyard outside Shifa Hospital, chanting slogans against Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. “Abu Mazen, we want resistance,” the crowd shouted. Dozens of Hamas gunmen fired assault rifles in the air.
Mr. Rantisi said the deaths caused by the strike “deserve retaliation.”
“But we must all remember that our war is not a war of retribution. We are resisting an occupation that has raped the land and sacrificed the holy sites,” he said.
“I swear we will not leave one Jew in Palestine,” he said. “We will fight them with our might.”
Some Hamas leaders said before yesterday’s strike that they were considering resuming truce talks that the group had abandoned on Friday. After the strike, however, Hamas threatened to resume its campaign of suicide attacks against Israel and even target Israeli politicians, which it has rarely done.
Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader, said there will be quick retaliation.
“The Hamas response will be like an earthquake,” he said. “An eye for an eye … a politician for a politician.”
Hamas is the largest group carrying out bombings and shootings against Israeli soldiers and civilians. In more than 90 suicide attacks since September 2000 — most by Hamas — more than 350 people have been killed.
The peace plan calls on Israel to refrain from actions that undermine trust but does not specifically rule out the targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists. Israel indicated last month that it would use targeted killings only as a last resort to prevent attacks on Israelis.
Israeli troops dismantled 10 uninhabited settlement outposts in the West Bank overnight, as provided by the peace plan.
Joseph Curl contributed to this report in Washington.