Hamas May Widen Its Horizons, Observers Say

Times Staff Writer

Israel’s assassination of Hamas chieftain Abdulaziz Rantisi could tilt the group’s balance of power toward more radical elements outside the Palestinian territories, with potentially serious regional repercussions, according to Israeli intelligence officials and analysts who study militant Palestinian factions.

The killing of Rantisi damaged Hamas’ operational capabilities, but the motivation of its fighters -- organized into tightly disciplined cells that are often unaware of one another’s existence -- is probably unchanged or even enhanced, longtime observers of the group say.

The power vacuum left by the killings of the trio of senior Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip -- Rantisi, spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and strategist Ismail abu Shanab, who was slain last year -- places more control in the hands of the group’s leaders in exile in Syria, who in turn have links to Iran and the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah, according to Israeli authorities and sources within the Hamas movement.


Within hours of Rantisi’s death Saturday in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was sounding very much in charge, ordering the Gaza branch to refrain from announcing the identity of its new chief. That was perhaps a wise precaution, but also an unmistakable assertion of Meshaal’s authority.

During the last year, Israel has demonstrated that it could move virtually unimpeded against Hamas in Gaza. Over the months, an Israeli campaign of “targeted killings” made fugitives of almost anyone of stature in the organization, from mid-level field commanders to senior figures whose status as “political” leaders had previously rendered them immune.

Hamas men were forced underground, shifting from one safe house to another, unable to use cellular phones that could be used by Israeli forces to pinpoint their position, traveling by car at their peril. One operative was killed with a missile strike as he rode on a donkey cart.

Hamas retaliated with suicide bombings inside Israel, but advocates of the Israeli strategy argued that the group would have been carrying out such attacks anyway. “After all, they think of that as their job,” one Israeli security official said.

With Gaza as a staging ground, the rules of engagement were starkly clear to both sides.

But should Israel choose to widen its war against Hamas to another front -- Syria -- “it would take things to a whole new level,” said analyst Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University.

“I think if some Israeli helicopter appears in the Damascene skies to target this one or that one, it will be a very significant escalation of Israeli intentions,” Kedar said. “Because in one window sits Khaled Meshaal, but in another window is [Syrian President] Bashar Assad.”


Traditionally, the branch of Hamas with headquarters in Syria has been the conduit for funds and more indirectly for weaponry. But the Gaza leaders had always carried the prestige that came with being in touch with the Palestinian street.

Israel has threatened in the past to strike at Damascus-based Hamas figures, but the shift away from the Gaza leadership structure has given greater weight to those threats.

“The fate of Khaled Meshaal is the fate of Rantisi,” Israeli Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra said. “The minute we have the opportunity, we will do this.”

Israel has previously struck at Meshaal on foreign soil. In 1997, he survived an assassination attempt in Amman, Jordan, by the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency -- a bungled operation that infuriated the Jordanian government and forced Israel to free Yassin from jail to ransom its disgraced agents.

Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, promised to keep hunting down “terrorists and anyone whose goal it is to kill Israeli citizens.” But he made no specific threats to go beyond the West Bank and Gaza to do so.

Among the foot soldiers of Hamas, Rantisi was a highly respected figure, one who served as a liaison between street fighters and higher-level strategists.


Rantisi also played a far more pivotal role than Yassin in the planning and execution of attacks, according to Israeli intelligence. His death, therefore, is likely to more acutely affect the group’s ability to carry out attacks, analysts say.

“There’s no doubt that Hamas’ military capabilities were hit, but I don’t believe this would have any immediate influence on the willingness to volunteer to carry out attacks,” said analyst Reuven Paz, who has tracked trends within Hamas for years. “The desire for revenge is rising, not falling.”

Rantisi’s removal from the scene, however, could eventually lead to a split between older strategists like himself and young field operatives determined to carry on the fight against Israel at any cost.

Many of Rantisi’s generation had an interest in transforming Hamas from a guerrilla army into an influential political movement that would help rule Gaza after the Israelis left. But fiery young members of its military wing have little such leaning.

“So you have all kinds of splits developing -- between the leaders in Gaza and those in Damascus, between the old guard and the avant-garde, even between those in the West Bank and Gaza, which involves the usual disdain of those from the north for those in the south,” said Shalom Harari, a former advisor to Israel’s Ministry of Defense.

The fact that Hamas has not been able to carry out a significant attack in the four weeks since Yassin’s death should not be read as a sign that the group has been beaten into submission, the analysts said.


“It’s not for lack of trying -- they try very hard,” Harari said. “The capability on their side, the intelligence resources on our side -- it’s a race and a competition, every day. And I don’t pretend that we have won.”