Rage over Rantisi

Hundreds of thousands of angry Palestinian mourners poured into the streets of Gaza City yesterday for the funeral procession of a Hamas leader killed in an Israeli missile attack the previous evening.

With calls for revenge against Israel, a parade of Hamas’ green banners, and masked gunmen firing into the air, the funeral of Abdel Aziz Rantisi bore many similarities to the one held less than a month ago after the assassination of Hamas’ founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

But just days after a Washington summit in which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon won key concessions from President Bush, many Palestinians directed their rage equally at Israel and the United States.

“Bush has Rantisi’s blood on his hands,” one mourner at the procession told the Reuters news agency. “All doors to hell should be opened against the Israelis and the Americans.”

Hamas reportedly appointed a successor to Mr. Rantisi, but kept the identity a secret to protect the new leader against assassination strikes. Meanwhile, Hamas’ military wing published a leaflet promising “100 retaliations” for the assassination.

Israeli security forces went on high alert in anticipation of revenge attacks. Mr. Sharon praised the strike at a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem and said Israel’s military would continue to target leaders of the Islamic militant group.

The United States was quick to deny any prior knowledge of the attack plan. A State Department official also said on Saturday that Israel “should bear in mind the consequences of what it’s doing.”

Nevertheless, harsh criticism of the United States and its Arab allies, such as Egypt, was heard across the Middle East.

“People think that after the summit that Bush gave Sharon everything. He canceled Palestinian rights and broke international law,” said Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas associate who edits a weekly paper in the Gaza Strip. “They expect nothing from the United States.”

At a joint press conference with Mr. Sharon on Wednesday, Mr. Bush endorsed an Israeli plan to dismantle all of its settlements in Gaza, where 7,500 Israelis live amid 1.3 million Palestinians, and some in the northern West Bank.

In return, Mr. Bush gave Mr. Sharon a letter saying it was unrealistic to expect Israel to pull out of large settlement blocs in the West Bank or for Palestinian refugees to return to lost homes in Israel under any final peace treaty.

The assurances were a boon to Mr. Sharon’s effort to win domestic approval for leaving the settlements, an unprecedented step since Israel began encouraging its citizens to start communities in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1970s.

Yesterday, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two other Cabinet holdouts announced they had decided to support the move - deflating the chances for Likud Party opponents to defeat the plan in a May 2 party referendum.

Despite Arab anger and Israeli elation over the summit, specialists said the significance of the Bush policy shift had been overstated.

The recognition of Israeli settlement blocs and the negation of a right for refugees to reclaim lands inside of Israel was included in a series of “parameters” endorsed by former President Clinton in a Jan. 7, 2001, speech. The principles became a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Taba, Egypt, later that month.

“Arafat accepted Clinton’s parameters, and they formed the basis of the Taba talks, in which all the Palestinian officials now protesting Sharon’s statements gleefully participated,” wrote Ali Abunimah, editor of the Palestinian Web site, Electronic Intifada.

“The dismay expressed by the [Palestinian Authority] leaders also reflects how much they have mortgaged themselves to the whims of the United States.”

The striking similarities between the Bush letter and the Clinton parameters were overshadowed by the images from the summit of the president and Mr. Sharon smiling side by side.

The departure in policy, said Scott Lasensky, a political science professor at Mount Holyoke College, can be found in the context of the letter rather than its content.

Compared with the bridging proposals suggested by Mr. Clinton as part of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Mr. Bush formalized the U.S. position in a written document delivered as part of a unilateral U.S.-Israeli withdrawal plan.

Mr. Bush has been accused of ignoring international law, which calls settlements illegal and demands the right of return for Palestinian refugees. But ultimately, the letter brought U.S. policy into line with political realities that have existed for decades.

“No one ever thought the refugees would come back to Israel. Until the 1970s, you might have been able to undo the settlements, but this is no longer true,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli historian. “It’s not such a big deal when you recognize reality.”