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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Peace prospects bleak after killing

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Gaza

Anyone who dared hope that the killing had ended after Ariel Sharon's breakthrough meeting with President Bush in Washington last week, would have been severely disappointed.

Dr Abdel Aziz Rantissi
Dr Rantissi was killed on Saturday by Israeli forces

Justifying the latest assassination of a high profile Palestinian militant, the Israeli Prime Minister said bluntly after a cabinet meeting on Sunday that he would continue to pursue and kill "the leaders of terrorist organisations".

Having secured US support for his "unilateral disengagement" plan, Mr Sharon appears to be in no mood for compromise or to relax his controversial "targeted assassination" policy.

Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi knew he was a marked man and was expecting to die.

He spoke to BBC News only three weeks ago, when he was announced as the new Hamas leader in Gaza, following the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

"I am not afraid. I want to be a martyr and will die, not at the hands of Sharon, but when Allah wants it.

'Justified killing'

"I would prefer to die a martyr rather than of cancer or heart arrest," said the 56-year-old.

Perhaps he didn't expect to die quite so soon.

Many countries and international organisations have criticised the assassination of Rantissi as illegal and counter-productive to the peace process.

But Israel's staunchest ally and perhaps the only international "opinion" it cares about - the United States - refused to join the condemnation - saying Israel has a right to defend itself.

Ariel Sharon
Ariel Sharon is in a strong position after returning from Washington

But even Washington added that it was gravely concerned for regional peace and stability.

Undeterred, and by now accustomed to international criticism, Mr Sharon's government says the killing of the Hamas leader was justified because he had openly supported and encouraged suicide bomb attacks against Israeli civilians.

Abdel Aziz Rantissi was a devout Muslim and hard-line political figure who firmly believed that Palestinians were justified in fighting to defeat the Israeli government in order achieve their political goals.

Sharon dominant

Mr Rantissi had dashed any faint hopes of a more conciliatory approach to Israel upon his appointment saying: "Nothing has changed, there is no-one left who believes in the peace process."

Although there are still articulate and senior figures remaining in Hamas, the assassination of such a high profile figure will be a huge blow to a movement with plenty of grass roots support, but fast running out of leaders.

Many observers appear to conclude that, for the time being, Israel is in a dominant position of strength.

Ariel Sharon is driving home the momentum of his Washington visit and, as he's done throughout his military and political career, rarely avoiding a confrontation he thinks he can win.

In the short-term Hamas has promised to hit back, to exact revenge for its slain leader.

Ariel Sharon and George Bush at the White House
The United States has refused to condemn the killing of Rantissi

While most Israelis support Mr Sharon's hard-line, confrontational policies they also fear and expect a Palestinian backlash.

It has yet to come, due in part to visibly increased security levels in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.

And the long term?

Well that's anyone's guess. The Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as they've been for a long time.

Any sense of "normality" or hopes for peace, appear very distant.




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