Dr Abdel Aziz Rantisi

Paediatrician newly appointed as leader of Hamas

Abdel Aziz Rantissi, physician and political activist: born Yubna, Palestine 23 October 1947; married (two sons, five daughters); died Gaza City 17 April 2004.

Like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, his predecessor as leader of Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantissi owed his fame and popularity more to Israel's harsh treatment and disproportionate punishment of activists opposed to its occupation of Palestinian land than to political cunning.

Rantissi caught world media attention in 1992 on the bare, snowy heights where the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian borders meet when he was exiled ­ among 416 Islamist and secular Palestinians ­ into no man's land near Marj a-Zuhur on the Lebanese-Israeli borders by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, himself assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist three years later.

Little known outside the circles of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which he had founded with six other activists ­ including the disabled Ahmed Yassin also assassinated by Israel three weeks ago ­ Rantissi in 1992 became the spokesman and the leader of the exiled group.

Deportation and exile elevated his status in Hamas as it emerged as a player in the international arena instead of remaining, in Rantissi's own words, local and limited. When he returned to the Gaza Strip, Rantissi was arrested and imprisoned numerous times by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PNA). His popularity increased during the present intifada, from 2001; a poll taken in the occupied territories just before the killing of Yassin put Rantissi second in popularity only to Arafat, with 14.7 per cent saying they would like to see him as Arafat's deputy.

One Friday in 1987 four Palestinian civilians in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza were killed in a traffic accident involved Israeli settlers and Israeli occupation soldiers. Rantissi joined other activists including Yassin, Abel Fattah Dukhan, Mohammed Shama, Ibrahim al-Yazour, Issa al-Najjar and Salah Shehadeh, instructing worshippers to end the service in local mosques with a demonstration against Israeli occupation.

It was the start of the first intifada, lasting five years and convincing the Rabin-led Labour government to sign a peace deal with the Palestinians. While Yassin represented the spiritual leadership, Rantissi became popular for organising a welfare network and helping many families as a physician, emerging as a local, social-political leader linking the loose networks of activists later in 1987 into what became known as Hamas. Later Rantissi and Shehadeh persuaded Hamas to join the rival Palestine Liberation Organisation PLO ­ whose leadership including Arafat was still in exile in Tunisia ­ to form a united leadership.

When nervous Israeli soldiers fired live rounds at stone-throwing schoolchildren, they were treated in Hamas-run medical centres, while their families had some of their economic hardship eased by Hamas welfare activities.

After the triumphant return of Yassin to the Gaza Strip in October 1997, Rantissi worked closely with the old sheikh to restore hierarchic command and to reinforce cadre uniformity within a reorganised Hamas. The flow of donations from wealthy Muslims increased following a tour of Muslim countries by Yassin. Reports suggested a budget of $15m a year, underpinning Hamas's popularity through welfare funding.

Unlike Yassin, whose leadership of Hamas was never formalised under any public title (indeed, he was never the head of its executive known as the Shura Council), Rantissi became officially the political leader of Hamas, endorsed by both the Shura Council and the Council of Guardians ­ an entity similar to the one ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran: a secretive unelected body whose membership is only known to a handful of Hamas operatives, not to the rank and file.

Born in Yubna, near Jaffa, in 1947, Rantissi was just over a year old when his family fled to the safety of the Gaza Strip in 1948 among thousands of Palestinian families driven out by underground Jewish terrorists, or urged to leave by Arab leaders marching their armies against the newly declared independent Jewish state.

Growing up in harsh conditions in a refugee camp coloured Rantissi's attitude towards the Israelis, whom he saw as "usurpers" of his home. He himself had no recollection of life in his place of birth, but, as he often said to journalists and foreign visitors to Gaza, knew, as did almost every Palestinian refugee, "every detail, door-knob, or crack in the ceiling plaster" in his house in Yubna, from pictures and repeated detailed bedtime stories told by his parents.

He was proud of his birthplace, Yubna, which was mentioned by several historians in the battles that Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim leader, fought against the Crusaders in the 12th century AD. Rantissi showed an early fascination with the Muslim-led ­ rather than Arab-led ­ historic fight against "infidels" invading Muslim land in Palestine. When he visited Yubna, he found "a right-wing Israeli family" living in his parents' house. "The issue of forced exile from our homeland has had a profound effect on my thinking," he told reporters.

Rantissi was an outstanding student, according to his teachers, when he finished secondary education in the Egyptian-administered Gaza in 1964. The following year he won a scholarship to Alexandria University School of Medicine, as part of Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's policy of securing university places for Palestinians and Arab students in Egyptian universities.

Ironically, Rantissi was recruited by the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser's arch-enemies, into their ranks. It is no secret in the Middle East that Hamas consult at length with the world leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood ­ still outlawed in Egypt for its violence and racism towards non-Muslim fellow Egyptians ­ before choosing their leaders or their Shura Council. The appointment of Rantissi as a leader three weeks ago was no exception.

Rantissi returned to Gaza a qualified physician in 1972, working in the general hospital there, before going back to Egypt in 1974 for two more years to obtain a master's degree in Paediatrics. Upon his second return in 1976, he became a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Gaza ­ from which the Jihad el-Islami movement was to emerge later.

He became a resident physician at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, occupying several posts in bodies such as the Arab Medical Society in Gaza, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. He lectured at the Faculty of Science at the Islamic University of Gaza when it was established in 1978. He later became Chief Paediatrician in the Government Hospital in Khan Yunis.

Outside his medical career he was politically active. In 1983, he was arrested for organising a tax revolt against the Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip. In January 1988, he was again arrested for 21 days, but released for lack of evidence linking him to violence against Israel. Within a month the Israelis arrested him again and he was not released until September 1990, only to be again arrested three months later and put in "administrative detention", i.e. detained without trial.

Although he wanted to establish a political leadership separate from the "military wing" of Hamas ­ comparable to Sinn Fein and the IRA ­ he was, with the other six founders of Hamas (three of whom were assassinated by Israeli missiles before Rantissi), held responsible by the Israelis for acts of violence. However no evidence that would convince a judge in a court of law of Rantissi's direct role was ever produced.

The strongest ­ mainly circumstantial ­ evidence linked Rantissi to an attack last June on an Israeli army checkpoint at Erez in the occupied Gaza Strip in which four Israeli soldiers were killed. Two days later Israeli gunships tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Rantissi, wounding him instead. He said at the time that Israeli soldiers were a fair target, and he preferred not to attack civilians, "but when Israeli gunships attack civilians the Palestinians have the right to retaliate in kind".

His rhetoric and declared opinions hardened the positions of the Israelis and even Arafat's leadership as he opposed the 1993 Oslo Agreement which enabled Arafat to return from exile. He was detained many times by Arafat's PNA, which feared his popularity due to his social and welfare work.

On 6 June 2003, Rantissi broke off discussions with the then PNA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas when the latter called for an end to armed resistance.

In the mid-1990s during talks among the Hamas leadership in Gaza and abroad and in its contact with the PNA regarding ceasing terror activity, Rantissi, together with Ibrahim Macadma and with the support of the external leadership, was one of the main opponents to any ceasefire and cessation of terrorist attacks inside Israel. Describing suicide bombing as "martyr operations", he said they were "a response to Israeli terrorism, against Palestinian civilians", saying they only started after the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein in the Hebron mosque in 1994 and intensified after the assassination of Yahya Ayash, a Hamas bomb-maker assassinated by an Israeli bomb in 1996.

He attacked Arafat because the latter

gave up Palestine and abandoned the National Charter. Have we forgotten that the PLO was originally established in 1964 for the liberation of the 1948 lands?

The PNA failed a number of times in attempting to arrest Rantissi as demanded by Israel in the past few years, as he was constantly surrounded by armed bodyguards and Hamas members.

Ruling out possible dialogue with Israeli left-wing peace activists, he said: "If people occupy a country which is not theirs and found a peace movement, does this change the fact that they are occupiers?"

Abdel Aziz Rantissi replaced Salah Shehadeh and Ibrahim Macadma, after they were assassinated by Israel, as the head, along with the spiritual leader Yassin, of Hamas and its principal spokesperson. Speaking fluent English, he regularly served as Hamas's spokesman to foreign journalists as well as making statements to the Palestinian public on behalf of Hamas. Unlike Arafat's men, Rantissi delivered a message to the Arabic press consistent with his to Western media.

In his multiple roles, Rantissi directed, instructed and determined policy, including violent activity, according to Israelis, who, after interrogating Hamas members, said that his public statements served as instructions for Hamas cells to carry out attacks.

In recent interviews, Rantissi assumed a more moderate tone than in the past, saying he would co-operate with the PNA toward possible joint administration of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal. On 26 January this year Rantissi offered a 10-year truce with Israel in return for withdrawal and the establishment of a state, saying "the movement has taken a decision on this".

On 27 March, three days after he became Hamas's official leader, Rantissi told a gathering of 5,000 supporters in Gaza that President George W. Bush was an "enemy of Muslims". He said:

America declared war against God. Sharon declared war against God and God declared war against America, Bush and Sharon. The war of God continues against them and I can see the victory coming up from the land of Palestine by the hand of Hamas.

Rantissi continued to make brazen appearances in public, with total disregard to his own security. But he also said he was ready for "martyrdom", adding it was God, not Ariel Sharon, who would decide when his life ended.

This, combined with the effects of his crude and undiplomatic statements about Israel, and his unexplained wealth, was fanning speculation about his motives and his true relations with Israeli secret services. Palestinian and Arab conspiracy theorists speculated that the assassination attempt on him last year could have been an old Gestapo trick to enhance his credibility amongst Hamas radicals.

Such theories were proved wrong when, on Saturday evening, as he was driving through Gaza City, Rantissi was killed by an Israeli Air Force missile strike ­ as Israel warned it would if Hamas were not disbanded by the PNA.

Adel Darwish

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