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New Hamas Leader Promises Continued Palestinian Unity, Resistance - 2004-03-24

The Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas has chosen its main spokesman, Abdelaziz Rantissi, as its new leader in Gaza. The choice was made late Tuesday, following the assassination early Monday of the group's spiritual leader and co-founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli missile strike.

Abdelaziz Rantissi has long been known as the public face of Hamas. He has been the group's main spokesman and is known for his blunt and often vitriolic statements in interviews. He also served as political aide to the late Hamas spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

A day after Sheikh Yassin's killing, Mr. Rantissi emerged as Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip, and he left no doubt as to what his main mission would be.

"We will not surrender and we should not surrender in front of the Israeli terror. So, the unity of Palestinians and the continuation of resistance will be my goals," he said.

Hamas is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. It was formed in 1988 during the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada. It rejects compromise with Israel, including any two-state solution, and does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Some elements within the organization are considered more moderate. But Mr. Rantissi is considered to be among the group's hardliners. He has already called for militants to increase attacks against Israel.

For its part, Israel has made it clear that he is a target. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday that after the assassination of Sheik Yassin, the rest of Hamas's leadership remains on the hit list.

Being on Israel's target list is not new for Mr. Rantissi.

In June of last year, Mr. Rantissi narrowly escaped assassination and was slightly wounded in this Israeli missile strike in Gaza. Even from his hospital bed, he remained defiant.

"We are facing murderers, terrorists, occupiers and I say to the world - no peace with occupation," he said.

Israel says Hamas and its leaders are responsible for numerous attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis. Israel and the United States have labeled Hamas a terrorist organization - a description Hamas disputes, saying it is fighting against Israeli occupation and for Palestinian rights.

Political Sociology Professor Iyad Barghouti, of al-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, has written several books on Islamic movements. He told VOA, that even if Israel wipes out the Hamas leadership it will not get rid of the ideological stream that Hamas represents. He says it is also important to realize that Hamas enjoys the solid grassroots support of about one-third of the Palestinian population.

"They are the supporters of religious orientation. Hamas has a lot of credibility among ordinary Palestinians," he said. "From one side Hamas can be considered as an organization and it is also a stream. It could survive without having a very solid organization."

Hamas also get support because of its social, medical and education programs in Palestinian areas. Professor Barghouti warns that assassinations, such as those Israel often carries out against militant leaders, are the easiest way to radicalize supporters of Hamas and other militant organizations.

Abdelaziz Rantissi is in his mid-50s. He comes from a family of refugees from the town of Yabneh, near Tel Aviv, who fled their home as a result of the 1948 war. He studied in Egypt and became a pediatrician, but spent little time as a practicing physician, devoting his time instead to Hamas activities.

He was jailed several times by the Israeli authorities and deported to southern Lebanon in 1992. He also spent a few years in prison under the Palestinian Authority in the late 1990s.

After the Yassin assassination, Abdelaziz Rantissi warned Israel that it had opted for, "all out war."