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Hamas threatens 100 reprisals for leader's slaying

But military group's strength in quesitons

GAZA CITY -- Hamas threatened "100 unique reprisals" against Israel for killing its leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and hundreds of thousands of mourners flooded the streets yesterday.

It wasn't clear whether the Islamic militant group was strong enough to carry out large-scale attacks after a sustained two-year Israeli campaign against it. Despite promises of revenge, Hamas still has not struck in the three weeks since Israel assassinated Rantisi's predecessor, Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Hamas chose a replacement for Rantisi yesterday, but did not disclose his name -- a possible sign the group is on the defensive in the face of Israeli attacks ahead of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Sharon yesterday picked up the support of key Cabinet ministers, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Limor Livnat, for his unilateral disengagement plan, including the Gaza withdrawal, ensuring him of a Cabinet majority ahead of a hard-fought referendum among the 200,000 members of his Likud party.

The prime minister told the Cabinet yesterday that he would forge ahead with his plan and continue to "hit the terror organizations and their leaders."

Cabinet minister Gideon Ezra said the top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, was also a target. Rantisi was in charge of the Palestinian areas and reported to Mashaal.

The killing of Rantisi sparked demonstrations -- some of them violent -- across Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Arab countries.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and critically wounded a 14-year-old Palestinian youth in a clash between stone throwers and soldiers.

Rebuffing international criticism, Israel said Rantisi, like Yassin, was targeted because he directed bloody Hamas attacks against Israelis and was planning more.

Many Palestinians held the United States responsible for Rantisi's death, saying it is giving Israel free rein.

"The Palestinian government considers this Israeli terrorist campaign to be a direct result of American encouragement and the total American bias in favor of the Israeli government," said the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, echoing a widely held sentiment in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian officials are furious with President Bush for endorsing Sharon's unilateral plan for withdrawal and backing Israel's demand to hang on to parts of the West Bank.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, denied that Bush gave Sharon the go-ahead for Rantisi's killing during their White House meeting last week. She told ABC-TV that Israel has the right to defend itself but that it is "extremely important that Israel take into consideration the consequences of anything that it does."

Mashaal said yesterday Rantisi's slaying only strengthened his group and boosted support for it. A local leader in Gaza, Ismail Hanieh, contended that Hamas suffered only a momentary setback.

Palestinian officials said they are worried that the next target for assassination will be their leader, Yasser Arafat, whom Israel accuses of fomenting terror. The Israeli Cabinet voted last year to "remove" Arafat.

At the funeral yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians filled the streets of Gaza City. In addition to Rantisi, two bodyguards were killed when two missiles struck their car. Hamas supporters chanted "God is great!" and "Revenge! Revenge!" and threw flowers at the three bodies as they passed in the procession. They touched Rantisi's exposed face, which was covered with shrapnel wounds.

About 200 armed Hamas militants lined the road and saluted the bodies as they approached a large blue and green mourning tent set up outside Rantisi's house. Men fired into the air, and many in the crowd raised their fists in anger.

Hamas posted a statement on its website pledging "100 unique reprisals" against Israel. It said it declared a state of emergency in the West Bank and Gaza until the revenge is carried out.

The group's leaders have threatened to target Israeli leaders, who are heavily guarded and travel in reinforced vehicles with bodyguards and convoys.

Why Hamas hasn't struck is not clear. Israel's campaign against it may have left it weakened, though Israeli terrorism specialist Reuven Paz said the killings of Yassin and Rantisi did not reduce Hamas's ability to carry out attacks.

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