What Will the Killing of Rantissi Mean?

It was just a few hours after an Israeli helicopter hunted down Abdel Aziz Rantissi, killing him and his two bodyguards as they drove down the street near Rantissi's home. I looked out the window of our Gaza office and saw the bloodied corpses wrapped in green Hamas flags being carried on the shoulders of a street packed body-to-body with Hamas supporters. The dead mens faces weren't covered.

The chant for revenge sounded like the roar that comes from a football stadium after a goal. More than 100,000 people turned out for the funeral. The lifespan for a head of Hamas keeps getting shorter. Only three and a half weeks had passed since Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassin, Hamas' founder.

The day after the funeral, we went to the mourners tent held in a stadium in Gaza City, not far from our bureau. We wanted to find out who the next head of Hamas would be. The life-size painted posters of five top Hamas leaders targeted and killed by Israel in the past two years loomed large over the scene. Rantissi's friends said he knew he didn't have long when he inherited the mantle from Sheikh Yassin three weeks back, when armed Hamas fighters came to pledge their loyalty, Godfather-style with their AK-47's in hand. The Israelis said they had four unmanned spy drones flying over Gaza City for the past two weeks in search of Rantissi.

At the mourners tent those Hamas leaders who remained were red-eyed and nervous, slinking into the tent, looking over their shoulders, a sense of doom and gloom at the highest level — the look of men resigned to their fate. Contrast that to the sense of exploding anger expressed by Gazan intellectuals and former moderates who had long believed a two-state solution with Israel would be possible. Some were starting to rethink that position. In their hearts that day, most Gazans would have liked to push Israel into the sea.

However, Israel has successfully hemmed in most Gazans. They cannot leave what they call their "big prison." Even if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulls the military and 7,500 Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip as he says he is planning to do, Israel will still control all of the entrances and exits. Gaza will remain overpopulated and poor, really poor. And now even more angry.

What affect, if any, will the killing of Rantissi have on the "peace process," I've been asked. Well, first of all, there is no peace process. No one wants to say it, but the Road Map, and President Bush's vision of peace and how to create a viable Palestinian state, is dead. That's the reason Prime Minister Sharon has been able to sell to the U.S. President a plan to unilaterally pull out of the Gaza Strip and disengage from the Palestinians. He says there is no partner on the other side. From the Palestinian perspective, Sharon is offering to pull out of Gaza while taking, prime land in the West Bank — land Israel captured and occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, land the Palestinians wanted for their eventual state.

Sharon for his part wants to make sure a pull-out from Gaza does not look like a victory for Hamas. He wants to smash Hamas before Israel withdraws, to insure that it does not look like Israel bowed to "terror" and left out of weakness. Hence, the escalated attempts to decapitate Hamas, killing its leaders.

The problem is, with every killing support for Hamas grows, and in the process Israel is not trying to engage any other Palestinian leader as an alternative to the extreme Islamic movement which has made suicide bombing its hallmark. So from the Palestinian point of view, it's all stick and no carrot from both Sharon and President Bush, who gave the Israeli Prime Minister unprecedented backing at a White House press conference last week. Even the Israelis know that the policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders may feel good, but doesn't necessarily lead to greater security or an end to suicide bombings in the short term.

On the day of Rantissi's funeral, Hamas vowed 100 "unique" attacks against Israel to avenge his death. A similar threat was made after Sheikh Yassin's killing but has yet to materialize. Hamas' military wing is trying, but Israeli security is so tight, and the fence (wall/barrier) being built in the West Bank to keep bombers out is working.

Do assassinations work? Perhaps in the short term they have thrown Hamas' top infrastructure into disarray. But they also might be breeding a future generation of bombers. As we left Gaza City, the tiny high-pitched screech of one young boy after another declared Rantissi a martyr on the local radio station and vowed to keep fighting for "Palestine."

As we approached the no man's land crossing back into Israel at the Erez checkpoint, we heard the whistle of two homemade Qassam rockets fired over our heads towards the VIP terminal. Of course, they didn't hit. These rockets are wildly inaccurate but still able to terrorize, and are symbolic of just how angry and helpless the Palestinians feel right now.