Two Hamas leaders have been killed in Israeli air attacks since late March as Israel seeks to strike sources of terrorism and suicide bombings in advance of the proposed Gaza withdrawal. Hamas leader Abedel Aziz Rantisi was assassinated by Israel on April 17th, less than a month after he replaced Hamas founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Hamas is unwilling to release the name of the latest replacement for fear he will also be targeted. However, three Israeli newspapers on Monday identified the new leader as 53-year-old Mahmoud Zahar, a strong Hamas spokesman who had served as both Rantisi's deputy and as Yassin's personal physician.
Zahar told reporters that Hamas would not offer the name of its new leader, but did not deny that he was it. Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, though not mentioning Zahar by name, said the new leader would have received the position "automatically", and did so with reluctance. "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" While Zahar is strongly opposed to making any settlement with Israel, he has so far remained quiet.
Hamas militants, however, fiercely angry at their leaders' assassinations, promised to carry out "100 unique reprisals" after Rantisi's death. Rocket attacks on Israeli settlements in Gaza have increased. The Palestinian attorney general has promised to speed up the prosecution of any informers or collaborators who helped Israel locate Rantisi.
Hamas claims responsibility for a large number of the suicide bombings during the past 3 years, in which hundreds of Israelis have been killed.
In the meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned U.S. President Bush that he no longer considered himself bound by his pledge to not harm Yasser Arafat, whom Sharon has accused of supporting terrorist activities against Israelis. While other militant leaders have been targeted for assassination, Israel has yielded to U.S. pressure and has avoided killing Arafat.
"I told the president the following: 'In our first meeting about three years ago, I accepted your request not to harm Arafat physically,'" Sharon said. "I told him I understand the problems surrounding the situation, but I am released from that pledge."