Israel identifies new Hamas leader

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The Independent Online

Israeli military officials today identified Mahmoud Zahar, a surgeon and prominent Hamas hard-liner, as the new leader of the Islamic militant group in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas has refused to reveal the name of the man chosen to replace Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas leader killed in an Israeli airstrike on 17 April.

Hamas denied the Israeli claims regarding Zahar, calling it a ploy to draw out information about the group's murky leadership structure.

Hamas leaders in Gaza have been in hiding since the group's founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by Israel on 22 March. Israel has said the group's entire leadership is marked for death.

Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings that have killed more than 300 Israelis.

All three major Israeli newspapers on Monday identified Zahar as the group's new leader.

Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that the new leader had accepted the post reluctantly and signaled that 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."

He did not identify the Hamas leader, but military officials said Yaalon was referring to Zahar.

Zahar, 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.

Since Rantisi's death, Hamas has said it has a new leader but refused to identify him.

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 for soldiers killed in war.

In an annual rite, the country came to a standstill for one minute Monday as sirens wailed in honor of the dead. Traffic halted, pedestrians bowed their heads and offices became quiet. At sundown, Israel was set to mark 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.

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 the parliament - even if he loses the referendum. Sharon hopes to carry out the plan by the end of 2005.

In today's interview, Yaalon said preparations for the withdrawal, including troop deployments, have been under way since January.

In Gaza, meanwhile, 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.

Yesterday, Israeli officials backed off Sharon's threats, saying there were no immediate plans to target Arafat.