International Papers

Hamas’ Leadership Crisis

If Saddam’s sons are fair game, why should Rantisi be off limits?

Middle Eastern papers focused on Saturday’s Israeli missile attack, which killed the leader of Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who had replaced Sheik Ahmed Yassin after Israel killed the group’s founder less than a month ago. Palestinian newspapers were united in condemning Israel’s strike, while the views expressed in Israeli papers ran the gamut.

A blunt headline in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam summed up the response among Palestinians: “Anger Grips West Bank and Gaza Strip After Rantisi’s Assassination.” The editorial page in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds expressed the most common Palestinian reactions to the missile attack: “Rantisi’s assassination will inflict great damage on the peace process and the hopes of the region’s peoples for living in security and stability.” The paper went on to note, “It seems that Israel does not take into account the grave consequences of its illegal actions that were condemned by the international community.” (Translations from the Arabic courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Israel’s mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot justified the killing. In a signed editorial, one of its senior commentators said, “If eliminating terrorists on the way to an attack is justified, then eliminating the commander and the inciter who dispatched the terrorist on his way is justified seven times over.” It continued, “Experience proves that senior terrorists, even the fanatics among them, don’t want to become martyrs. They’re afraid to die and the fear deters them and their cohorts. The rocket with a personal address on it is the Israeli answer to the ticking Islamic bomb.” (International papers gave prominent play to a quote from Rantisi that seemed to counter this view. Britain’s Independent reported that after assuming the top role in Hamas, Rantisi had said that everybody dies one day: “Whether by killing or by cancer. … If by Apache or by cardiac arrest, I prefer Apache.”)

The Jerusalem Post took issue with the widespread global condemnation of Saturday’s strike. Contrasting Jack Straw’s defense of the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons and his condemnation of the killing of Rantisi, an editorial asked, “Will the British foreign minister explain why the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein was justified and ‘productive,’ but the killing of Abdel Aziz Rantisi was not? All three are, or were, leaders of what the British government defines as terrorist organizations.”

Not all of the Hebrew press defended the hit. While noting that Rantisi “was not morally immune to such attacks,” Ha’aretz stressed, “The main factor to be weighed is whether an assassination will encourage the moderate camp to struggle against the target’s successor and try to break away from the cycle of violence and revenge.” Ha’aretz argued that if killing Hamas’ leader is likely to reduce the threat of terror or strengthen moderate Palestinians, then the action is justified; if the opposite is true, then the order to target someone like Rantisi should not be given.

A Yediot commentator acknowledged Israel’s military prowess, but predicted that Hamas would eventually succeed in carrying out retaliatory attacks on Israelis, “and we will not escape the cycle of bloodshed.”

All the Israeli papers highlighted the fact that Hamas has refused to identify Rantisi’s successor publicly. Ha’aretz named several men who may have assumedthe top slot, and speculated that the group has appointed a collective leadership to serve with Rantisi’s replacement. The paper also stressed that Rantisi’s death leaves Hamas in a weakened position as it negotiates with the Palestinian Authority over how Gaza will be ruled following Israel’s planned withdrawal.

Noting that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won support from two key ministers for his plan to withdraw from Gaza the morning after the IDF missile strike that killed Rantisi, Ma’ariv wrote that the Israeli public likes leaders to combine hard-line tactics aimed at enhancing security with hopeful words of peace. The combination of Sharon’s successful meeting with President Bush last week and the killing of Rantisi makes it hard for Israelis to support politicians who oppose the prime minister’s plans to cede Gaza.