Israel Defends Hamas Strike Despite Bush's Reprimand

Despite a sharp reprimand from President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) remained unapologetic Wednesday about the botched assassination attempt on Hamas (search) co-founder Abdel Aziz Rantisi (search).

According to Sharon, Israel will "continue to fight the heads of the extremist terrorist organizations -- those who initiate, those who fund and those who send terrorists to kill Jews."

Bush criticized Israel on Tuesday, saying the attack disrupted the path to peace in the Mideast, and also made it harder for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to fight terrorism.

The missile strike jeopardized the so-called "road map," a U.S.-backed peace plan for Mideast peace and a Palestinian statehood by 2005. Bush has invested his presidential prestige in the initiative, formally launching it with Sharon and Abbas at a summit last week in the Jordanian resort of Aqaba.

Hamas opposes the peace plan. Last week, Hamas broke off talks with Abbas on laying down arms and, along with two other militias, killed five soldiers in shooting attacks over the weekend. After Tuesday's missile strike, Hamas threatened bloody revenge. The group has already killed hundreds of Israelis in recent years.

Abbas denounced the missile strike as terrorism, appealed to the United States to intervene, and said he would keep trying to reach an understanding with Hamas and other militias. Abbas opposes the idea of a crackdown on the armed group, saying there is no substitute for dialogue and that he will not risk a civil war.

On Wednesday, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman arrived in the West Bank town of Ramallah for another attempt to negotiate a truce, despite the remote chances of success. The Egyptians have tried in recent months to persuade Hamas and other militias to halt attacks on Israelis, but have been rebuffed.

After the Rantisi attack, anger in Hamas was running high, and it appeared unlikely the militant group would agree to a cease-fire.

Suleiman met with Abbas and veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and it was not clear whether he would also hold talks with Hamas leaders in Gaza. Officials in Suleiman's delegation said the intelligence chief was also trying to sort out differences between Abbas and Arafat on security issues.

Abbas has been unequivocal in his condemnation of violence against Israel, while Arafat has been much more ambiguous and stands accused by Israel and the United States of involvement in terrorism.

Arafat called Rantisi after the missile strike and congratulated him on surviving a "criminal assassination attempt," the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

The militants have been seeking a guarantee from Israel that it will halt targeted killings of terror suspects and incursions into Palestinian areas, a promise Sharon has been unwilling to make. The road map does not specifically forbid such strikes, though Israel is asked to avoid actions that undermine trust.

Sharon on Wednesday was quoted as saying that he would not wait for Abbas to reach an agreement with Hamas. "If the Palestinian Authority does not perform its duties, we will do so instead," Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot daily.

In an apparent reference to Washington's criticism, Sharon also said the United States was aware from the start that Israel would not halt its fight against militants.

Earlier, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had said Bush was "deeply concerned" that the assassination attempt "will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks, and does not contribute to the security of Israel."

The strike against Rantisi was widely criticized in Israel, including by politicians who generally support targeted killings; Israel has carried out dozens of such attacks in the past 32 months in its campaign to prevent bombings and shootings.

"I think it was a mistake," said former Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the opposition Labor Party. "The problem is not how to fight terror. We have been doing that for three years. The issue is how to let this new thing (the road map) be born despite the difficult labor pains."

Israeli helicopter gunships fired seven missiles at Rantisi's convoy as it drove along a crowded Gaza City thoroughfare. One missile hit the front of a Mitsubishi Pajero with Rantisi, his son Ahmed and a bodyguard inside. Rantisi jumped out, suffering shrapnel wounds in his leg and chest. The rest of the missiles turned the vehicle into a mass of twisted, smoking wreckage.

The bodyguard was killed along with a bystander, and Rantisi's son, the driver, was seriously wounded. An 8-year-old girl who was critically wounded remained on life support Wednesday. Two dozen bystanders were also hurt.

Several hours after the strike, Hamas activists fired mortars and homemade rockets at Israel, causing no injuries or damage. At one point, Israeli troops spotted two cars carrying Hamas activists driving away from rocket launching sites.

Helicopters joined the chase through the town of Jabaliya in northern Gaza. One car got away, and passengers abandoned the second vehicle, taking cover in a residential area. Helicopters fired two rockets toward the car, and tanks fired shells.

In all, three Palestinians were killed and 33 wounded by the Israeli fire. The three dead were bystanders, ages 19 and 16, doctors said. Among the wounded were several Hamas activists but also 15 children under the age of 15, doctors said. Six of the wounded were in critical condition Wednesday, including two minors.

At Gaza's Shifa Hospital, after fellow Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon, treated his wounds, Rantisi warned of bloody revenge.

"I swear we will not leave one Jew in Palestine," he said. "We will fight them with all our might." Hamas has carried out dozens of homicide bomb attacks in Israel, killing more than 300.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.