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Hamas Chooses New Leadership - 2004-03-23


A new leader has emerged to head the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza, replacing Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli missile strike on Monday. Former Hamas spokesman Abdul Aziz Rantisi has been named to serve in the role.

The crowd chanted its support for Mr. Rantisi after his selection was announced over a loudspeaker at a soccer stadium in Gaza City during a gathering of tens of thousands of Hamas supporters. He said Palestinians would never surrender to what he termed Israeli terror.

Later, he spoke in English to reporters. "We have to unify in the trench of resistance. We will not surrender. And we shouldn't surrender in front of the Israeli terror," he said. "So, the unity of Palestinians and the continuation of resistance will be my goals in the coming future."

Mr. Rantisi also said there will be a more formal election process in Hamas at some time in the future. But for now, he will lead Hamas in Gaza, and he said exiled Hamas official Khaled Mashaal, who lives in Syria, is the group's overall leader.

Mr. Rantisi is known as a hardliner in his advocacy of no compromise with Israel. On Monday, he warned that following Sheikh Yassin's assassination there would now be "total war" with Israel. He said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had "opened up the gates of hell."

Responding to the Yassin assassination, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and other militant groups also vowed revenge.

Israeli officials said earlier Tuesday that no Palestinian militant leader is safe.

Israel's public security minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, warned there would be "no immunity" for any Palestinian militant leader. Israeli Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon said Israel would continue to target militant leaders when, as he put it, opportunities present themselves. He also suggested that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah could be next in line. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said remaining leaders of Hamas are also being targeted.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, Palestinian anger continued Tuesday in the wake of the Yassin killing. Militants fired a homemade Qassam rocket at a nearby Jewish settlement and later fired several more at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel. There were no injuries in either incident.

Israel has clamped a closure on the West Bank and Gaza, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel. Israeli police and soldiers are on heightened alert in Israeli cities.

The assassination of Sheikh Yassin drew widespread condemnation from Arab and European governments. The United States said it is "deeply troubled" by the killing, but stopped short of condemning it.

Israel says Sheikh Yassin was responsible for ordering many suicide attacks against Israelis. An overnight public opinion poll by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot indicated that 60 percent of Israelis support the decision to kill Sheikh Yassin, even though they expect more attacks as a result.