GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The militant group Hamas (search) backed off its initial threats against the United States, saying Wednesday that it would focus on attacking Israel — and try to kill Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — in retaliation for the assassination of its founder in an Israeli missile strike.
The Syrian-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal (search), addressed mourners in a Gaza City soccer stadium by telephone hookup Wednesday, promising victory over Israel and appealing for Palestinian unity. "Who is America and who is this ugly world and who is Sharon and who is Mofaz?" Mashaal said in a show of contempt. Shaul Mofaz (search) is Israel's defense minister.
Despite Hamas' threats, militants appear to have trouble carrying out immediate revenge attacks. Israel has been on the highest possible alert since the killing of Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin (search) on Monday. Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in homicide bombings and other attacks in recent years. Altogether, since violence erupted in 2000, more than 2,700 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and more than 950 on the Israeli side.
Late Wednesday, several Israeli tanks moved back into an area of the Khan Younis (search) refugee camp in southern Gaza where some structures were razed a day earlier, residents said. A policeman was wounded by Israeli fire, they said. Palestinians said 15 buildings were wholly or partly demolished.
Early Thursday, Palestinian security sources said Israeli forces had withdrawn from the area. The Israeli army said it was checking the report.
In the West Bank, a 16-year-old Palestinian was caught at an Israeli roadblock with a bomb vest strapped to his body. Soldiers jumped behind barricades, and a dramatic standoff ensued. After persuading the youth to take off the vest, troops sent a yellow robot to deliver scissors and he cut off the vest. The teen's brother said the boy is gullible and easily manipulated.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) claimed responsibility for sending the youth, a resident of the West Bank city of Nablus.
A week ago, an 11-year-old boy was caught trying to smuggle explosives across the same roadblock, south of Nablus. The use of young bombers and accomplices is a sign of the difficulties the militants are facing in carrying out attacks. Children and teens usually come under less scrutiny at checkpoints than Palestinian men.
The new Hamas leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, on Wednesday backed off veiled threats the group made against the United States following Yassin's killing. And another Hamas leader in Gaza also said Americans were not a target.
Immediately after the missile strike, Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, said it held the United States responsible because of its support for Israel, and that "all the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation for this crime."
President Bush said Tuesday that the United States takes the threat seriously. On Wednesday, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States remains concerned about the safety of Americans in the region. And a senior Bush administration official, asking not to be identified, said the credibility of Wednesday's disavowal cannot be assured.
Rantisi, a 56-year-old trained pediatrician, told reporters Wednesday the group is not interested in exporting its activities and that Hamas' attacks will be aimed solely at Israel.
"We are inside Palestinian land and acting only inside Palestinian land. We are resisting the occupation, nothing else," he said. "Our resistance will continue just inside our border, here inside our country."
Another Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, also said Americans have nothing to fear from Hamas. "You are people innocent of the Zionist conspiracy that is fooling you and is stealing your money. You are not our target," he said.
Zahar said Israel is doomed and will disappear. "Israel knows that the vision of the Muslim victory is coming, and the blood of martyrs will be a fire that will burn the ground beneath you," he said.
Mashaal, who heads the Hamas political bureau, the group's main decision-making body, addressed thousands of supporters at a Gaza City soccer stadium, where armed Hamas militants vowed huge attacks against Israel. "Wait for the earthquake," one masked man warned.
"Those gangs, Sharon and his gangs, they will know that Hamas will be stronger and resistance will be stronger," Mashaal said.
The Hamas leader also said Hamas attacks are driving Israel out of Gaza; Sharon has said he will pull out of the strip if peace efforts remain frozen in coming months. "Sharon said that he is leaving, but we are not waiting for his statements. The reason for Sharon leaving Gaza is resistance and not his initiative," Mashaal told the crowd.
Such bragging has prompted Israel to step up its attacks on Gaza militants. Israeli generals have said they want to avoid a hasty retreat like the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000.
In Damascus, Syria, Mashaal told The Associated Press that Hamas has "the right, or rather the duty, of resistance to target the heads of Zionist terrorism in the same way that they (Israelis) have been targeting the symbols of resistance during the past decades, including its late and greatest symbol, Yassin."
Earlier Wednesday, the Hamas Web site posted an interview in which Mashaal said: "I hope that the holy warriors can retaliate against this awful crime by targeting the most prominent Zionist leaders ... including Sharon."
For its part, Israel has decided to target the entire leadership of Hamas.
Rantisi, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt last June, said he is not afraid of dying. "If it's cardiac arrest or an Apache (helicopter), I prefer to be killed by an Apache," he said.
In Casablanca, Morocco, Simon Levy, the head of the Jewish community there described Israel's deadly attack on Yassin as "bestial." He said Yassin's death amounts to "the failure of Sharon to ensure the security of Israel."