Gaza City — Hours before narrowly escaping an assassination attempt by the Israeli military, Hamas leader Abdel Azziz Rantisi dismissed the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace plan and claimed that most Palestinians opposed it as well.
“It’s a big mistake. You won’t find any Palestinian who will tell you otherwise,” said the Hamas hardliner in an interview with The Jewish Week Monday at his home here on the Gaza Strip.
He offered a chilling assessment of Israel’s ability to combat the Palestinian terror campaign, saying, “While we have failed in creating a balance of force, we have succeeded in creating a balance of suffering.”
Rantisi’s remarks came amid an upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence that imperiled President George W. Bush’s “road map” initiative less than a week after he presided over a peace conference in Aqaba, Jordan.
The wave of bloodshed began Sunday on Gaza’s northern border as Palestinian militants used the cover of the early morning mist and of thousands of Arab workers on their way to jobs to attack an Israeli military base, killing four soldiers. It was a rare instance of cooperation among three rival militant outfits — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade – and a clear signal of defiance to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, whose message at Aqaba was viewed as too conciliatory to Israel by Palestinian hardliners.
In retaliation on Tuesday, Israeli helicopter gunships fired at least seven missiles at the convoy in which the Islamic militant leader was traveling in Gaza City, killing one civilian and a security guard.
Rantisi, 55, who scoffed Monday at Abbas’ attempt to demilitarize the Palestinians’ 32-month uprising as part of the Bush administration’s road map initiative, escaped with shrapnel wounds. From his hospital bed in Gaza City he pledged revenge, saying “I swear we will not leave one Jew in Palestine.”
The episode set off another spasm of revenge attacks, with militants firing Kassem rockets over the Gaza border to the Israeli town of Sderot and the army retaliating with a strike in the Jabaliya refugee district that killed three Palestinians.
But it was the decision to go after Rantisi — the most senior figure in Hamas’ West Bank and Gaza leadership ever to be targeted by Israel — that evoked the ire of the Bush administration. President Bush said he was “troubled” by the attack. “I regret the loss of innocent life,” he said. “I’m concerned that the attacks will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off the terrorist attacks. I also don’t believe the attacks help the Israeli security.”
The groundswell of public sympathy for the Hamas leader that followed the attack was seen by some as dealing a serious blow to Abbas’ standing just as his fledgling administration struggles to gain traction in the effort to implement the road map.
The attack on Rantisi “weakens [Abbas]. But worse than that it weakens the logic of peace,” said Hannan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. “It undermines any attempt to strengthen the people who are thinking rationally and trying to extract us from this lethal process. It presents a dynamic of violence and revenge.”
Abbas called Israel’s strike a “terrorist attack,” and said it would undermine peace efforts. Abbas had been criticized by opponents and allies alike for his performance at Aqaba.
Ignoring the Palestinian political fallout and domestic criticism questioning the timing of the attack, Israeli military officials accused Rantisi of direct involvement in planning terrorist attacks, including Sunday’s strike, and not simply being a front man for Hamas. Rantisi, they said, was the flag bearer of Palestinian hardliners opposing the U.S.-backed peace initiative.
And according to reports in the Israeli press, Israel will hand over to Washington a dossier documenting Rantisi’s involvement in terror. “This information is intended to show that Rantisi was not just a ticking bomb but a factory of ticking bombs,” a senior Israeli security source told Haaretz Wednesday.
“I think that the Palestinians should know that as long as terrorism continues there cannot be peace,” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said. “We made it clear that this government will not accept two parallel tracks — a track of peace and a track of terrorism.”
An editorial in the Jerusalem Post accused the U.S. of “blatant hypocrisy” in making war on terrorists while condemning Israel for targeting Rantisi, “an enemy of the U.S.” as well as Israel.
Late last week, Rantisi led Hamas in walking out on discussions with Abbas about a possible cease-fire against Israel. As the largest opposition group to Abbas’ Palestinian Authority and the first to launch suicide attacks against Israel, Hamas is viewed as crucial to the fledgling peace process.
But Rantisi criticized the road map’s requirement that Palestinians end military action as the first condition for establishing a Palestinian state within two years. The initiative offers only “vague promises” to Palestinians about statehood, he told The Jewish Week.
“This is the road map: ‘Stop resistance, and wait,’ ” he said.
Rantisi cited Sunday’s attack on an Israeli military base on the Gaza Strip border — coordinated jointly by three rival Palestinian militias — as proof that Palestinians are closer to the Hamas position than that of Abbas.
“All Palestinian factions — even Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority — are with the resistance because no one believes in the negotiations,” he said from his home Monday.
Citing public opinion polls, Rantisi said that Abbas enjoyed less than 10 percent support for his policies, and was weakened after failing to reiterate Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and the right of return for refugees at last week’s Aqaba summit with Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
He predicted that Abbas would never dare to use force against Hamas, as Israel has demanded. Hinting on Monday that talks with Abbas would continue, Rantisi said that an agreement would only occur if the prime minister edged toward Hamas’ position that a truce would require Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Abbas said this week that he would not use force against Hamas and other militant opposition groups but would work out an agreement with them to cease their attacks.
On Wednesday, an Egyptian mediator arrived to restart talks aimed at a Palestinian cease-fire.
Rantisi, a pediatrician trained in Egypt who speaks English, helped found Hamas in the late 1980s and spent several years in Israeli jails. In the early 1990s he was expelled along with dozens of Hamas leaders to southern Lebanon. In the latter part of the decade, during the heyday of the Oslo peace process, he also spent time in Palestinian jails. He is viewed by some as a possible successor to aging Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
On Monday, in a third-floor apartment in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood, a middle-class area on the edge of the Jabaliya refugee camp, Rantisi’s mobile phone rang continuously, as dozens of journalists sought his reaction to Abbas’ first public press conference.
Amid the media siege, the Hamas leader called off interviews to participate in late afternoon prayers. In between utterances of “Allah Akhbar,” or God is Great, he handed off the singing cell phone to an aide.
Immersion in the Koran, he said, helped him remain sane during months of solitary confinement while imprisoned in Israel. The devotion also figures prominently in his living room decor, which includes Hamas’ green banner and a replica of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
But rather than citing Islamic religious teachings, Rantisi expressed confidence in Hamas’ tactic of attacking Israeli citizens as rooted in lessons from 20th century military history. Just as Israel pulled out of Lebanon after years of attacks from local guerrillas, and just as popular resistance forced the U.S. out of Vietnam, Israel will be forced to concede to the Palestinians, he said. Despite the Israeli army’s overwhelming superiority, Palestinian fighters retain the initiative in the uprising, he argued.
“They are fighting ghosts,” he said.
Rantisi assailed the U.S. initiative for seeking Palestinian concessions while refraining from pressure on Israel. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to dismantle several hilltop outposts, Israel had given up next to nothing in the current negotiations, Rantisi said.
“Sharon said [Sunday] that ‘We have liberated our land in 1967,’ meaning this land, Gaza, is Israeli,” Rantisi said. “We believe that Tel Aviv is Palestinian Islamic land. So you will not see a solution.”