JERUSALEM – Israeli military officials said Monday they believe Mahmoud Zahar (search), a surgeon and prominent Hamas (search) hard-liner, is the new leader of the Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas denied the Israeli claims regarding Zahar, calling it a ploy to get information about the group's murky leadership structure.
Hamas has refused to identify the man chosen to replace Abdel Aziz Rantisi (search), the Hamas leader who was killed in an Israeli airstrike April 17.
The group's leaders in Gaza have been in hiding since the Hamas founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by Israel on March 22. Israel has said the group's entire leadership is marked for death.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of homicide bombings that have killed more than 300 Israelis in the past 31/2 years.
All three major Israeli newspapers on Monday identified Zahar, who had been Rantisi's deputy, as the new leader.
Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that the new leader had inherited the post "automatically" and reluctantly accepted. Yaalon also signaled Israel would avoid attacking him as long as the group remains quiet.
"He doesn't want it, and he is apparently avoiding making decisions, and he is apparently avoiding terrorism," Yaalon said. "Anyone who doesn't use terrorism against us, we do not deal with."
Yaalon did not identify the Hamas leader, but military officials said he was referring to Zahar. The officials noted, however, that it is impossible to identify the leader with 100 percent certainty because of Hamas' fluid leadership structure.
Zahar, 53, the former personal physician of Yassin, is considered a hard-liner in Hamas. He rejects not only any settlement with Israel, but has also opposes compromise with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. He has escaped two Israeli assassination attempts, mostly recently a September attack that killed his eldest son and a bodyguard.
Ismail Haniyeh, a prominent Hamas spokesman in Gaza, accused Israel of trying to trick Hamas into divulging sensitive information.
"This is a clear blow that the Israeli Zionist enemy is attempting to find information and to make us say yes or no," he said in an interview on a Hamas Web site. "Mentioning names by the Israeli enemy shows that they are preparing new aggression on Hamas."
The Yaalon interview came as Israel marked its annual remembrance day for soldiers killed in war.
In an annual rite, the country came to a standstill for two minutes Monday as sirens wailed to honor the dead. Traffic halted, pedestrians bowed their heads and offices became quiet. At sundown, Israel marks its independence day.
Violence marred the day, as Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a vehicle in the West Bank shortly after the observance began Sunday night. An Israeli border policeman was killed and three others were wounded.
Security alerts were heightened, with Palestinian militants pledging retaliation for Israel's killing of the Hamas leaders in recent weeks.
In Gaza, a 14-year-old boy was shot in the back by Israeli army fire and died, Palestinian medical workers said. The boy was in a group of youths who had climbed some sand dunes to watch the soldiers.
Military officials said soldiers used non-lethal means to disperse a demonstration and did not know of a boy being shot.
Medical workers also said a 15-year-old mentally handicapped girl had been shot and moderately wounded after approaching an Israeli settlement near the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.
The military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said soldiers saw a woman running toward the settlement in a place where Palestinians are not allowed to be, assumed she was attacking the settlement and opened fire. They said the settlement, Morag, has been a frequent target of Palestinian militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has proposed pulling out of the Gaza Strip, in a unilateral move he says is meant to boost Israeli security. He has said the withdrawal would be accompanied by a limited pullback from four West Bank settlements.
Sharon's hard-line Likud Party is set to hold a referendum on the withdrawal plan next week, and polls have given Sharon only a narrow lead.
On Sunday, he suffered a further blow when three influential Likud ministers, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declined a request to play a more active role in promoting the plan.
With the race tightening, Sharon has backed off promises to honor the results of the vote. Last week, he said he would present the plan to his Cabinet and to parliament — even if he loses the referendum. Sharon hopes to carry out the plan by the end of 2005.
In Monday's interview, Yaalon said preparations for the withdrawal, including troop deployments, have been under way since January.
In Gaza, about 500 Palestinian medical workers demonstrated near the Shifa Hospital to show support for Arafat.
Sharon said over the weekend that he no longer considers himself bound to a pledge to the United States not to harm the Palestinian leader.
Israeli officials backed off Sharon's threats Sunday, saying there were no immediate plans to target Arafat.