Yassin's top deputy forced to withdraw as new Hamas leader

Monday, March 29, 2004

GAZA CITY Abdul Aziz Rantisi has withdrawn his claim of becoming the new leader of Hamas.

The withdrawal took place hours after Rantisi announced that he was taking over the Islamic insurgency movement in wake of the assassination of Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. Rantisi's claim of leadership sparked outrage within Hamas -- both in the Gaza Strip as well as abroad.

Ismail Haniya, a leading Hamas figure, dismissed Rantisi's claim of being the new chief of the movement. Haniya said the interim leader of Hamas is Khaled Masha'al, head of the movement's political bureau and based in Damascus. Haniya said the selection of Masha'al was in accordance to the structure of the organization, which is being reexamined in wake of the Israeli assassination of Yassin.

On late Tuesday, 36 hours after the death of Yassin, Rantisi declared himself the new leader of Hamas. Rantisi, a pediatrician by profession, has been regarded as Yassin's chief deputy for the last three years, Middle East Newsline reported.

Rantisi's announcement sparked anger both within the Gaza Strip as well as within the leadership in Syria. Masha'al said the movement's political bureau must first convene to appoint a successor to Yassin.

By late Wednesday, Rantisi appeared to withdraw his claim of being the sole leader of Hamas and acknowledged the role of Masha'al. But Rantisi stressed that the successor to Hamas would come from within the Gaza Strip.

"The successor to Sheik Yassin is the internal leader while Khaled Masha'al is the head of the overseas political bureau," Rantisi said.

For his part, Haniya said Rantisi would be provided with additional authority to administer Hamas. He did not elaborate, but other Hamas veterans said the Shura Council would seek authority for funding and other decisions.

The leadership dispute was believed linked to who would control Hamas funds. Yassin had access to an estimated $30 million a year that entered the Gaza Strip. It has been unclear whether Rantisi -- who on Wednesday was said to have gone underground -- would be given the same responsibility.

"Decisions are made according to democratic principles and are finalized according to the majority, not according to one individual no matter how high-level he is," Mohammed Ghazal, a leading figure in Hamas, said. "Sheik Yassin, may God have mercy, was a leader and a symbol. However, from an organizational aspect, he was subject to the same standards applied to all members of the leadership."

Regardless of his position, Rantisi's biggest challenge would be the restoration of Hamas's infrastructure in the West Bank. Palestinian sources said repeated Israeli strikes have decimated Hamas cells in such cities as Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem. They said this could hamper plans by Masha'al and Rantisi to launch a wave of suicide bombings against Israel to avenge the assassination of Yassin.

The sources said Hamas's operational chief, Mohammed Deif, would seek authority for all Hamas strikes. On Wednesday, Rantisi relayed a message to the United States that it would not be a target of a Hamas attack. "We will not strike America," Rantisi said. "Israel is our enemy, not the United States."

On Thursday, 60 Palestinian dignitaries, including several members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, published an appeal in a Palestinian daily that urged Hamas not to avenge the killing of Yassin. The dignitaries said a Hamas offensive against Israel would result in greater suffering for the Palestinians.

The issue of succession would also affect Hamas's policy toward the Palestinian Authority. As Yassin's chief aide, Rantisi boycotted the PA.

"He won't continue with the same rigidity," Rantisi's cousin, Ribhi, said. "He must change a little. He'll become a little more moderate also with the appointments, with the meetings of the PA people, which he used to reject."

In the West Bank, Israeli troops foiled a suicide bombing by a 14-year-old Palestinian outside the northern city of Nablus. Soldiers at a military roadblock were alerted to the boy and ordered him to stop and remove his suicide explosive belt.

During interrogation, the boy said he was given 100 shekels, or about $22, to kill himself, and was promised that he would make love to 72 virgins in heaven, Israeli military sources said. This was the third time this month that a Palestinian boy was used in an attempted suicide bombing attack in the Nablus area.

"In his investigation he cited his motives as the will to prove himself despite his unpopularity among others and the will to earn 72 virgins," an Israeli commander said.

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