Rantisi chose open defiance rather than a life in hiding

Palestinian terrorist leader: From the Gaza refugee camps he vowed the destruction of Israel
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The Independent Online

A middle-aged children's doctor who, when he pronounced, did so in calm, even tones, Abdel Aziz Rantisi was not an obvious hard man.

But the 56-year-old was a founding member of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, and among the most forceful opponents of compromise with Israel, which held him responsible for the wave of suicide bombings.

When, less than a month ago, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated, Rantisi became the leader in Gaza ­ and immediately rose to the top of Israel's assassination list.

He was already a marked man, and had survived an attempt to kill him last June, when three Apache helicopters fired rockets at his car. The vehicle was destroyed and two bystanders were killed, but he managed to walk away.

Rantisi, an Egyptian-trained paediatrician, had long depicted himself as a politician with no links to the military wing of Hamas. Israel refused to accept the distinction.Certainly, as a Hamas spokesman, he issued frequent vows of revenge for Israel's killing of militants. "We will fight them until the liberation of Palestine, the whole of Palestine," he told thousands of Hamas supporters after Sheikh Yassin was killed.

Rantisi's approach won him many admirers, especially among younger Palestinians. He consistently argued that they have a right to resist Israel by any and all means.

A devout Muslim and father of six, he had been known to interrupt interviews for his daily prayers. But his Western suits and near-fluent English made him sufficiently media-friendly to command air time on CNN and the BBC.

The assassinated leader was born near what is now Israel's coastal city of Ashkelon. His family was among the thousands displaced when the Jewish state was created in 1948, and he grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp on the Gaza Strip.

Rantisi returned to Gaza after his medical training, and in 1987 helped found the Hamas organisation. But his role in the first intifada, in the same year, drew the Israeli authorities to send him to jail. Altogether, he spent seven years in prison.

Since the start of the latest intifada, he had played a major role in building Hamas's support base, often at the expense of the Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat, and his Fatah faction.

Rantisi refused to go into hiding, despite the assassination of Sheikh Yassin. "It's death, whether by killing or by cancer. Nothing will change. If by Apache or by cardiac arrest, I prefer Apache," he said last month.