The militant Palestinian group Hamas has lost two of its senior leaders in less than a month. Israel says the militant group has been crippled, but Hamas spokesmen have vowed revenge, and say the group is stronger than ever. Meanwhile, there are indications Hamas wants to broaden its targets, at least rhetorically.
Arab analysts in the Middle East say that what Hamas lacks in leadership, it is making up for with increasing public support.
After the assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, Hamas pledged to retaliate and unleash a volcano of revenge. The militant group made similar threats after Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed by an Israeli airstrike last month. But no significant attacks followed either threat, leading some to believe Israel might have succeeded in reducing Hamas's ability to launch terror operations.
Israel says the Hamas leaders were directly involved in planning and funding terrorist operations. It says anyone who does that is a legitimate target, and it has pledged to continue killing militant leaders whenever it can. Israel says the killings are more than symbolic, that they have a direct impact on Hamas's ability to carry out terrorist attacks. Indeed, the head of Israeli military intelligence said the killings left Hamas in a total state of shock.
But analyst Sami Baroudi, professor of political science at American University in Lebanon, says the Israeli assassination policy is resulting in more and more popular support for radical Islamism among Palestinians. ?The more they kill of the leaders, the more support there will be for the movement, and the less support there will be for the more basically secular leadership,? he said.
And Mr. Baroudi says the assassinations had little impact on Hamas's ability to carry out the kind of suicide attacks that made it famous. He says those attacks are organized by operational cells, not by the senior political leadership.
?Mainly they represent a political wing of the movement. They are basically the ideologues of the movement really, they are the ones on television,? Mr. Baroudi said. ?I don't think they are the ones who are basically operating on the ground. I don't think people like Yassin or Rantissi are really involved in the preparing of suicide bombers. They are more symbolic leaders.?
Analyst Uraib El-Rantawi, director of the Jerusalem Center for Political Studies in Amman, Jordan, says the elimination of the popular Hamas political and spiritual leaders will only fuel support for the group. The United States has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization because of the dozens of suicide bombings it has carried out, killing hundreds of Israelis, many of them civilians.
But Mr. El-Rantawi notes that Hamas enjoys considerable support, even among moderate Palestinians, because it is not only a para-military group, but also has a widespread social and educational network.
?I think you cannot summarize such a big movement, such an influential movement, as a terrorist group,? he said. ?It is a social movement, it is a political movement, it has infrastructure, it has health care, it has educational institutions. I think the influence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip will be increased as one of the consequences of the assassination of its two leaders.?
Analysts say they cannot predict whether growing support for Hamas will translate to increasing numbers of suicide bombings.
Meanwhile, Hamas is calling on Islamic groups to attack American targets.
The top Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Syria, was quick to enlarge the battlefield between Palestinians and Israelis, saying their fight now involves not just the regional conflict, but what he sees as the bigger ideological clash between the Arab world and the United States.
Speaking from Lebanon, Hamas spokesman Osama Hemdan said the group does not plan to change its policy of targeting only Israel in its own operations. But he says Hamas leaders hope that others will act against U.S. targets on behalf of Hamas and the Palestinian cause.
?Now I believe there is a huge situation which generated hatred and anger against the United States,? he said. ?And now I believe some of the people in the Arab world and Islamic world will take the responsibility of defending Hamas and the Palestinians against the Americans, and that will generate a situation against Americans also in the region, which will be helpful for the Palestinians against Israel.?
In Amman, analyst Uraib El-Rantawi says there are practical reasons for Hamas's decision not to attack U.S. targets itself.
?Politically, yes, they consider the U.S. as an enemy to the Palestinian people and Hamas movement. But when it comes to how to fight against the Americans I don't think Hamas would involve military attacks or terrorist attacks or suicide attacks against the Americans at all. They know it very clearly, if they follow such a track they will have very serious trouble.?
Hamas has vowed to continue its fight to destroy Israel and create an Islam-based Palestinian state. The only change for now, the group says, is that it will try to keep secret the identities of its leaders, in an effort to shield them from Israeli assassination attempts.