Bush upset at Israel for trying to kill Hamas chief

President Bush said to be furious as the Israeli attack is condemned as an attempt to scupper peace talks with Palestinians
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The Independent Online

George Bush reacted angrily when Israel attempted to assassinate a leading Palestinian militant yesterday - an attempt that could seriously damage the peace process which is personally sponsored by the US President.

Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush's spokesman, said the President was "deeply troubled" after an Israeli helicopter fired seven missiles in an attempt to kill Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, a senior leader in the political wing of Hamas. The attack killed two people and seriously hurt other bystanders.

The attack was so damaging to the peace process that many observers said it looked like a deliberate attempt to wreck it.

The missile attack in the Gaza Strip came during attempts by Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, to persuade Hamas to agree to a temporary ceasefire. It left Dr Rantisi's jeep a burning wreckage -the militant leader only survived because he jumped out of the car after the first rocket missed.

President Bush "is concerned that the strike will undermine efforts by Palestinian authorities and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks and does not contribute to the security of Israel," Mr Fleischer told reporters. "In looking at the progress that must be made for the road map and then looking at this attack the President is deeply troubled by it."

Abu Mazen used stronger language. The Israeli missile strike was a "terrorist attack in the full meaning of the word because it targeted innocent people", he said. A woman in her fifties was killed when shrapnel smashed into her car and an eight-year-old girl was in critical condition last night after shrapnel hit her as she stood nearby. One of Dr Rantisi's bodyguards was also killed.

The attack came at about 11.20am local time as Dr Rantisi was driven through a busy Gaza neighbourhood by his son. An Israeli helicopter fired one rocket which missed, according to one of the Hamas leader's bodyguards. Dr Rantisi flung himself from the car and ran. The helicopter fired six more rockets. The Hamas leader was injured in the leg, but was in stable condition last night.

There is no love lost in the White House for Dr Rantisi who, as Hamas's main spokesman, is the face of a group responsible for the killing of hundreds of civilians. But the assassination attempt looked like a deliberate attempt to undermine the "roadmap" peace plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

Under the terms of the roadmap, Israel is not supposed to take any military action that could damage the peace process. But in yesterday's attack it actually turned up the heat on Hamas. Although Israel has a stated policy of assassinating leading militants, it has in the past mostly refrained from targeting Hamas's political leaders.

Dr Rantisi has always been considered a leader only of the political wing. Israeli officials yesterday sought to justify the assassination attempt, claiming he is also a leader in the armed wing who has ordered militant attacks, but offered no evidence.

Abu Mazen promised at the Aqaba summit last week to end the "armed intifada". If he cannot get Hamas to stop suicide bombings, the peace process is likely to collapse again.

Hamas walked out of talks with Abu Mazen over a possible temporary ceasefire last week. But hours before the first rocket slammed into the road a few feet from Dr Rantisi's car, senior figures in Hamas were discussing resuming talks.

The attack also came as Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief, who has acted as a broker in talks between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, was due to fly in to try to get talks restarted.

Israel has repeatedly been accused of timing assassinations of Hamas militants to wreck Palestinian and Arab attempts to get a ceasefire. Last summer, a ceasefire was believed to be near when the Israeli air force bombed a packed residential neighbourhood to assassinate a Hamas leader, killing nine children as well.

After yesterday's assassination attempt, Dr Rantisi said from his hospital bed: "We will continue with our holy war and resistance until every last criminal Zionist is evicted from this land," he said.

The attack damaged the little support there is among Palestinians for Abu Mazen and the "roadmap". Angry crowds gathered around the wreckage of Dr Rantisi's car, chanting their condemnation of Israel and Abu Mazen.

The attack looked like a bad miscalculation by Israel. It came on the same day an Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, published what it said was an account by an insider at the closed-door meetings at Aqaba last week. According to the unnamed source, Mr Bush spoke angrily to Mr Sharon and then told Condoleeza Rice, his National Security Adviser: "We have a problem with Sharon I can see."

But within hours of yesterday's criticism, Israeli rockets and tank shells slammed into the Gaza Strip again. They were aimed at militants who fired rockets into Israel in retaliation to the attack on Dr Rantisi. Two men and one woman were killed by the Israeli attack on the residential area - a development unlikely to improve Mr Bush's mood.

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