- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2004

TEL AVIV — Just one day after assassinating Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Israel threatened to kill the Islamic group’s entire leadership and hinted that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also might be targeted.

Hamas, meanwhile, moved swiftly to fill the leadership vacuum created by the killing, naming Abdel Aziz Rantisi to lead the Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip and Khaled Meshaal, who Israel thinks is based in Syria. Both leaders are considered hard-liners within Hamas who remain opposed to abandoning armed conflict until the destruction of the Jewish state.

But Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, suggested yesterday that the policy of targeting Hamas leaders would continue.

Some see the new Israeli offensive as part of an effort to demonstrate military superiority as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon draws up plans for a unilateral withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip.

“It is our view that decapitation of the terrorist infrastructure is one means among the strategies in the war against terror,” Gen. Yaalon said. “The strike on Yassin is a significant blow to the Hamas terror organization.”

The military chief also said Mr. Arafat’s decision to hunker down in his Ramallah headquarters indicated that he recognized that “it’s getting closer to him,” according to the Web site of the Ha’aretz newspaper.

The latest round of violence continued on a lower key yesterday as Israeli helicopter gunships fired missiles at rocket launchers used to lob artillery into Israel from southern Lebanon, killing two Palestinian guerrillas, the army said.

Early today, about 25 Israeli tanks entered the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, residents said. Israeli military officials said the operation was aimed at clearing an area used by Palestinian gunmen.

Off the coast of the Gaza Strip, Israeli gunboats fired machine guns at what military sources called a “suspicious object” floating in the sea waters about 2 miles from the shore line. Palestinian fishermen said they were being targeted by the Israelis, the Associated Press reported.

An armed Palestinian was killed outside the security fence around the Gaza Strip settlement of Morag. Israeli infantry soldiers guarding the settlement opened fire to prevent an infiltration into Morag.

At a military checkpoint on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli soldiers disarmed a bomb planted in a truck with Israeli license plates.

Palestinians continued to observe a three-day period of morning in Sheik Yassin’s honor. In Mr. Rantisi’s acceptance speech, he urged Palestinian militants to “unify the umbrella of the resistance” and “teach this Zionist occupation a lesson,” the Associated Press reported.

Mr. Rantisi, a 53-year-old pediatrician, escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in July — the first time Israel had targeted a senior member of the Hamas leadership. Palestinians see figures such as Sheik Yassin and Mr. Rantisi as “political” leaders of Hamas, but Israel says that the distinction is unfounded and both have overseen the organization’s attacks on Israel.

A delegation of Palestinian Authority officials led by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia traveled from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip yesterday to pay a condolence call at the tent set up in a soccer stadium for the tens of thousands of mourners.

Mr. Qureia paid tribute to Sheik Yassin, calling him a figure who unified the Palestinian people.

The sentiment is likely to translate into increased support among Palestinians for the creation of some form of coalition between Hamas and Mr. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority to run the Gaza Strip after the Israeli pullout.

“The [Palestinian Authority] will have to reconcile itself to some kind of partnership with Hamas after the Israeli withdrawal,” said Ziyad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator. “Hamas will not accept being a junior partner. It wants to participate in the decision-making process where its opinions will be taken into account.”

Meanwhile, Israeli police and security authorities remained on high alert as they braced for a Palestinian retaliation. Ha’aretz reported that the assassination had triggered flight cancellations by tourists who were booked to visit Israel for the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Israeli commentators and politicians continued to question the wisdom of the assassination, echoing reservations by the chief of the Shin Bet security agency that the damage from the revenge attacks and the bolstered standing of Hamas outweighed the benefits.

In Ha’aretz, Yoel Marcus questioned the timing of the strike.

“If Gaza isn’t handed over to the Palestinian Authority, haven’t we then sabotaged the unilateral-disengagement initiative with our own two hands?”

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