TEL AVIV (Apr. 18)
The weekend airstrike on Abdel Aziz Rantissi was not just the second time Israel has killed the leader of Hamas in less than a month.
The strike also appears to have won Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon some political support as he prepares to present his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip to the Likud Party’s membership early next month.
Had Israel wanted to portray Saturday’s assassination of Rantissi as retaliation, it need only have pointed to a suicide bombing at the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel boundary a few hours earlier.
That attack, claimed jointly by Hamas and the Al-Aksa Brigade, killed a border police sergeant, Kfir Ohayon, and wounded three other Israelis.
But Israeli officials said the plan to kill Rantissi had been in the works for some time.
The timing of what Israel calls a “targeted killing” also strengthened Sharon for his first meeting with government ministers since returning from Washington last week. While in the United States, Sharon received the Bush administration’s backing for his controversial plan to disengage Israel from the Gaza Strip and much of the West Bank.
Several Cabinet members, including a few from Sharon’s own Likud Party, had said the withdrawal plan risked inflaming Palestinian violence.
But on Sunday, two major skeptics of the plan — Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat — quickly endorsed Sharon, while Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also looked likely to do an about-face and close ranks with the premier on the Gaza withdrawal.
“It is hard to preach to Sharon about ‘getting tough on terror’ the morning after the army, on his orders, killed Rantissi,” a senior source in the Prime Minister’s Office said.
The emerging consensus bodes well for Sharon as the May 2 referendum on the disengagement plan among the Likud’s 200,000 members looms.
Even if the National Unity bloc and National Religious Party leave the government in protest, Sharon has hinted that their four seats can easily be filled — perhaps by the opposition Labor Party in a national unity government.
Rantissi, a trained pediatrician given to anti-Semitic rhetoric, had topped Israel’s wanted list for years, and survived a similar airstrike on his car last June. He succeeded Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whom Israel killed last month, on March 24.
The airstrike that killed Rantissi also killed two of his bodyguards.
The United States declined to rebuke Israel for the killing, though it did express concern over the hostility that Rantissi’s death may exacerbate.
Israel should “consider carefully the consequences of its actions,” the White House said after the assassination of the Hamas chief.
“The United States is gravely concerned for regional peace and stability,” spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement. McClellan reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas and other terrorist groups, but urged “all parties to exercise maximum restraint.”
Most of the international community, including the European Union, condemned the assassination as a blow to diplomatic progress.
Speaking at an informal meeting of E.U. foreign ministers in Ireland on Saturday, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the bloc had “consistently condemned extrajudicial killings.”
He added: “Israel has a right to protect its citizens from terror attacks, but actions of this type are not only unlawful, they are not conducive to lowering tension.”
The Palestinians, as well as their Arab backers, went further, accusing the United States of having given Israel the go-ahead for the action.
“It is no doubt a crime,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei told reporters in Ramallah. “Unfortunately the Israelis feel they are supported by the United States administration.”
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Palestinians lined the streets of Gaza, many calling for revenge, as Rantissi’s body was carried for his burial.
U.S. officials denied any involvement in planning or approving the Rantissi assassination.
But some Israeli analysts agreed that, following the White House summit last week at which Bush approved Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal, Israel now believes it has a lot of latitude to act in its interests while the Palestinian Authority languishes on the diplomatic sidelines.