JERUSALEM — An Israeli helicopter missile strike Saturday killed Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a well-known and popular leader of Hamas, hospital officials and witnesses said, about a month after a similar attack killed the spiritual leader of the radical Palestinian group.
Rantisi, 54, who had recently become the Gaza Strip leader of Hamas, for years launched vitriolic assaults on Israel and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He could order a demonstration and within hours mobilize tens of thousands of Palestinians into the streets.
Rantisi was killed about 8:30 p.m. when an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles that demolished a white Subaru sedan in which he was traveling about a block from his home in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, according to witnesses. Two of his bodyguards — Akram Nassar, 35, and another man who had not been identified late Saturday — were also killed in the attack, hospital officials said.
Rantisi, who was critically wounded in the attack, was rushed to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Arabic satellite television stations aired graphic images of doctors frantically working over his body, which was covered with puncture wounds and slash marks.
In a statement, Hamas said it had chosen a new leader but would keep his identity secret.
“This is just deepening the slide into a lose-lose situation between the Israelis and Palestinians,” said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinians. “Sharon thinks he can solve problems with incursions and assassinations. This will only add fuel to the fire.”
Israeli officials defended the assassination.
“We are preventing terrorist attacks and part of the prevention is to go after terrorists like Rantisi,” said Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Anyone who will replace him and will continue this business of terrorism against Israel is a legitimate target.”
Rantisi, a pediatrician, assumed the leadership of Hamas in Gaza on March 23, a day after Israeli helicopters fired three missiles at Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound co-founder of the group, killing him as he was being pushed home from morning prayers at a local mosque. Seven other Palestinians died in that attack.
With the killings of Rantisi and Yassin, and the targeted killing last August of another senior Hamas political activist, Ismail Abu Shanab, Israel has removed the most charismatic and senior leaders of Hamas in Gaza. The leadership mantle will now probably be passed to Ismail Haniya or Mahmoud Zahar, both senior political figures in the group. Israeli missiles destroyed Zahar’s house in a failed assassination attempt last year.
The missile strikes flipped Rantisi’s white Subaru onto its roof, flattening it. Television images showed rescue workers and passers-by struggling to pull maimed and bloodied passengers from the shredded wreckage. As one body was extracted and carried away on a stretcher, a medical worker followed closely behind, clutching an unidentifiable body part dripping with blood.
Thousands of Palestinian protesters converged on the scene of the attack and at Shifa hospital, screaming vows of revenge. Demonstrators burned tires in the streets; mosques blared verses from the Koran and militants fired bursts from AK-47 assault rifles across the city.
In a statement, the White House said Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorist attacks but urged it “to consider carefully the consequences of its actions.”
The statement appealed for all sides to use restraint, noting that doing so was especially important “at a moment when there is hope that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will bring a new opportunity for progress toward peace.”
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a statement that “the British government has made it repeatedly clear that so-called ‘targeted assassinations’ of this kind are unlawful, unjustified and counter-productive.”
Last June, Rantisi and his 19-year-old son, Ahmed, were seriously injured in an Israeli missile strike on their car that killed a bodyguard and two bystanders. Since then, Rantisi had adopted extraordinary security precautions and was rarely seen in public, and then only in large crowds.
The killing came three days after a White House meeting in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush vowed again to work together to wipe out Palestinian terrorism, which they see as a prerequisite to establishing an independent Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders denounced Bush’s endorsement of a Sharon plan that would allow Israel to keep several large Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that rejected the right of return for Palestinian refugees forced from lands that are now part of Israel.
A statement on the Hamas Web site Saturday night said, “The terrorist Sharon government, with American assistance, escalated its war against the Islamic Resistance Movement.”
Rantisi, who spoke fluent English and was quoted frequently in the American press, often insisted that Palestinians would not relinquish their claim to Israel, predicting that all land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean would ultimately fall to Palestinian control and ownership.
Like many other Hamas leaders, Rantisi in recent years moderated his message; even suggesting Hamas could enter into a long-term cease-fire with Israel. But political analysts who follow Hamas say such statements simply illustrated Rantisi’s pragmatic side, and that he never softened his real goal of destroying the state of Israel.
Portly, bearded and bespectacled, Rantisi was particularly popular with Hamas’s guerrilla fighters. Although technically a member of the group’s political wing and one of its founders, he was considered the key intermediary in Gaza between the political side of the organization and its military faction, called the Ezzedeem Kassam Brigade.
On the day Rantisi took over as the Gaza leader of Hamas, he told thousands of supporters at the city soccer stadium that his organization would strike Israel wherever possible. “We will chase them everywhere,” he told the crowd. “We will teach them lessons in confrontation.”