The assassination of Gaza Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on April 17 has enflamed passions across the Palestinian areas and muddied the waters for negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Tens of thousands poured onto the streets of Gaza for the funeral of Rantisi on April 18 in scenes almost identical to those a little over three weeks ago, when Gazans came out en masse to mourn the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Then, as now, the crowds called for revenge and Hamas promised retaliation, while Israeli officials said they had struck a major blow to the movement and vowed to continue their "targeted killing policy.”
In between assassinations, however, Hamas did not exact revenge against Israel, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon instead came back from Washington with unprecedented concessions from an American administration that, to many on the streets of Gaza, is indistinguishable from the Israeli government, and which they believe gave Israel the green light to continue it assassinations.
"Israel and the US are the same," said Zahra, 23, walking in the procession following Rantisi’s body. An accounting student at the nearby Islamic University, she denounced the assassination as a "cowardly attack" and said Hamas, whom she supports, would only grow stronger.
"If they kill Rantisi, a million others will rise up to replace him."
Kamal Hajjaj, 29, another Hamas supporter in the crowd, did not primarily blame the US – "because they are already on Israel’s side" but Arab countries who have "failed to unite."
Hajjaj, a carpenter by trade, agreed, however, that Hamas would only grow as a result of the assassination. "Immense attacks against Israel," he said, "for both Sheikh Yassin and Rantisi, are imminent."
Despite the widespread outpourings of support and anger on the streets, however, Hamas supporters are also aware that there was no retaliation against Israel in the weeks since Yassin’s assassination on March 22. The movement has based a large part of its popularity on being the faction that is able to deliver on its promises, and absent signs that it is still able to do so, said Hisham Ahmed, Professor of Political Science at Birzeit University and author of a book on Hamas, in an interview shortly before Rantisi’s assassination, it might lose some of its credibility.
"Several weeks after the assassination of Yassin, Palestinian society has not yet seen a response. This is a very delicate balance that I believe Hamas leaders have to take into consideration, because almost everybody has been anticipating a strong response for the assassination. If this were not to happen, I presume that the level of Hamas’ popularity would be seriously affected."
Hamas, in fact, under Rantisi’s leadership, entered into negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the future of the Gaza Strip in the event of an Israeli withdrawal, on whether, and if so, how, Hamas and the PA could agree on a power-sharing formula for how the Strip should be administered.
These negotiations will inevitably be affected by Rantisi’s assassination, according to Major-General Saeb Al Ajez, of the National Security Agency. "Everyone expected Rantisi to be more hardline, but we found him more moderate," he said.
Negotiating with the PA is now expected to take a backburner to retaliating against Israel, as Hamas, in the words of Ahmed, "walks the tightrope between its political needs and objectives, and the need to maintain popular strength and popular appeal on the ground."
"In the near future," said a Hamas source, "Hamas efforts will be fully focused on retaliation. This comes before anything else."
"Hamas themselves have not decided what they want," he continued, speaking of the negotiations with the PA. "They want to play a role in governing Gaza, but they don’t know as part of what. They will not take part in the Authority as it is because they cannot accept the Oslo Accords that created the PA. Becoming a part of the PLO is of no use to them, because the PLO is ineffectual, and to create a new form of authority is unacceptable to the PA."
"Hamas and the PA have different agendas," said Ajez. "The PA’s is a political agenda of negotiations. We call on Israel to withdraw and to implement the roadmap. Hamas has a different agenda and doesn’t agree with the roadmap."
Ajez said negotiations should focus especially on security arrangements after an Israeli withdrawal, rather than the form of authority.
"The outside world understands government as being an authority not a collection of factions. Because of this it is better the PA should stay as it is. The factions should agree on what happens after a withdrawal and be committed to specific security arrangements to avoid internal feuding."
But Ajez admits that the Authority is at its weakest at the moment, and while he believes it is still more powerful than Hamas "in terms of weaponry," the assassinations make Hamas stronger, he said, because "people, emotionally, will empathize more with the movement."
Both Zahra and Hajjaj were reluctant to be drawn on the question on whether they supported Hamas as an alternative to the PA, but some in the crowd did not hide their feelings.
"What Authority?" scoffed one teenager when he heard the question posed to Zahra. "There is no Authority."