Defiant Hamas leaders vow to continue terror against Israel

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The Independent Online

The Gaza Strip has not faced the military onslaught that Israel is conducting on the West Bank, but leaders of the radical group Hamas are concerned that they will be targeted next as militants are tracked down.

The main members of Hamas in Gaza – Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the group's spiritual leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, known for his fiery speeches, and Mahmoud Zahar, a leading spokesman – still appear at rallies and other public events, but have altered their routines.

Zahar now changes cars most days. Rantisi has switched off his mobile phone and is unreachable, while Yassin's aides never leave their leader.

All three belong to Hamas's political leadership and claim they are not involved with the military wing which carries out attacks. But Israel has said that it does not accept this distinction.

Throughout the past 18 months of fighting in the Middle East, Israel has killed dozens of suspected militants in attacks on their cars, offices, and even in backyard chicken coops. Israel said the militants were behind attacks against Israelis.

Israel's foray into half a dozen Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank region has only heightened concerns. In the West Bank town of Tubas, Israeli troops on Friday trapped six Hamas gunmen in a house and then riddled the hideout with helicopter-fired missiles and tank shells, killing them all, according to witnesses.

The Hamas members included Qeis Odwan, accused by Israel of organising the suicide attack on 27 March, on an Israeli seafront hotel that killed 26 Israelis. Hamas vowed "a tough response" to the six deaths, saying it would "shake [Israelis] to the core and destroy them".

Meanwhile, the Hamas leaders continued to appear publicly at rallies and at demonstrations.

Yassin addressed a rally on Friday that drew 10,000 supporters, and he said that further attacks were planned. Rantisi and Zahar said similar things to thousands more at another rally that took place in Gaza City.

Sitting in the medical clinic he runs, Zahar, a surgeon, promised more attacks. "We will continue the way we started and no one can dictate anything to us, we only fear God, we don't fear the enemy, and God willing, we will continue to terrorise them," he said, looking over spectacles balanced on the tip of his nose. "They should not expect Gaza to be a nice trip for them, everyone here will defend the land."

Coming out of a mosque following Friday afternoon prayers, Ismail Abu Shanab, another prominent Hamas leader, acknowledged that he was taking some protective measures. At least one of those steps was visible – his car windows had been recently tinted.

"We are doing all that we can, but don't forget we are freedom fighters and we have to be among our people," Abu Shanab said. (AP)

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