Surviving Hamas leader reaches the hour of decision:
Sustain war effort or go underground
Week of June 24, 2003
For years, Abdul Aziz Rentisi was known as the mouth of Hamas. His rhetoric was one of holy war against the Jews, support for suicide bombings and Islamic revolution.
But sometime over the last three years, Rentisi graduated from mouth to one of the brains of Hamas. At that point, he turned from being an agitator to being an architect of terror.
Rentisi seemingly has more than one life. On June 10, he survived an Israeli missile strike on his car in Gaza City. President Bush criticized the attack, which sparked retaliatory Hamas missile attacks and a suicide bombing in Israel. The Israeli attack on Rentisi was said to have been part of a campaign to target the Hamas leadership.
U.S. officials did not understand the Israeli attack on Rentisi. They didn't see Rentisi as Israel saw him a time bomb and immediate terror threat that had to be eliminated. The time-bomb designation was the source of a dispute between U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Israel's Dov Weisglass, the chief of staff of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"What do you think a time bomb is?" Weisglass asked Rice during one of many phone calls last week. "Is it somebody who walks around with a bomb, saying 'tick, tick, tick?'"
Rentisi's rise within Hamas reflects far-reaching changes in the organization. Israeli intelligence officials say Hamas has gone through three stages. In the initial stage, Hamas had a loose structure that organized anti-Israeli unrest and terrorist attacks
During this phase, Rentisi began working a physician for the Israeli Civil Administration in the 1980s. In 1987 he was one of the six founders of Hamas and five years later he was expelled to Lebanon. There, Rentisi became the spokesman for the 416 Hamas members deported by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
In 1994, following the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas underwent a second stage. It had established a formal military wing with terrorists trained in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. The terrorists were led by Yehye Ayyash and they received most of their orders from Damascus. Rentisi's job was to justify the attacks, rather than direct them.
Under heavy Israeli and U.S. pressure, the PA cracked down on Hamas in 1996 and arrested hundreds of Hamas members. PA Chairman Yasser Arafat imposed his will on Hamas and the organization agreed to suspend terrorist activities from the Gaza Strip.
But some Hamas terrorists remained under direct Iranian and Syrian control and in 1997 carried out suicide bombings in Jerusalem. Again, Arafat pressed hard and this time Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, then released from prison, imposed discipline within the organization. At the same time Yassin and Rentisi began to reorganize Hamas.
Rentisi was in jail for much of the late 1990s. When he was freed in 1999 Hamas changed again. Yassin wanted to ensure that the leadership within the Gaza Strip would control the organization even while it received tens of millions of dollars from abroad.
Yassin appointed Saleh Shehada to be the No. 2 in Hamas and oversee the military wing of the group. Unlike Ayyash or Mohammed Deif, Shehada was regarded as a cleric rather than a bomb expert. Shehada directed terrorist policy and controlled the money to the military wing.
After Israel assassinated Shehada last year, Ibrahim Maqadmeh took over. In March, Maqadmeh was liquidated in an Israeli missile attack.
Finally, it was Rentisi's turn. Unlike Shehada and Maqadmeh, Rentisi had been used to having a high profile threatening Israel with attacks and justifying suicide bombings. He even had his own website that trumpeted his speeches and threats of jihad.
Still, Rentisi was seen as being more powerful than his predecessors.
Israel had already captured or killed the Hamas leadership in the West Bank and the Gaza wing of the organization filled in the vacuum.
Israeli officials said they decided to wait to see whether Rentisi would take the hint that terrorism does not comprise a long-term career move. The PA established the post of prime minister, filled by Mahmoud Abbas, who supported the end of Palestinian insurgency attacks against Israel. Abbas launched a dialogue with Hamas to achieve a one-year ceasefire.
In discussions by the Hamas leadership, two camps emerged. One group advocated a ceasefire that would allow Hamas to reorganize. Another group, led by Rentisi, wanted Hamas to step up attacks and make any ceasefire dependent on PA concessions to the Islamic opposition. In short, Rentisi wanted to use terrorism as a lever for additional power.
At that point, Rentisi approved a Hamas attack on the Israeli terminal at Erez in the northern Gaza Strip. Hamas members dressed in Israeli military uniforms entered the terminal and opened fire on Israeli soldiers.
Four soldiers were killed. At a Hamas leadership meeting the following day Rentisi was crowing.
Rentisi has also directed more money for the production of Kassam short-range missiles for Hamas. The money for the weapons came from Syria through Lebanon and to Israel.
Rentisi's contact in Damascus was Khaled Masha'al, head of the Hamas politburo. Masha'al raised money from Gulf Arab sheiks in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Rentisi's contacts were with Tito Masud, regarded as the architect of Hamas's military industry. Masud, 36, was killed in an Israeli missile strike on June 12 in Gaza City.
Israeli officials said Rentisi completed the merger between the military and political wings of Hamas. Rentisi does not plan specific attacks but helps decide when they will occur. His communications with the cadres of the military wing is often through the media. In his public statements, his encouragement of suicide bombings is regarded as approval for additional attacks.
Rentisi has control of an estimated $80 million that comes to Hamas from a range of sources. Saudi Arabia is believed to transfer $30 million a year. Hamas also raises money in Europe and in the United States.
Most of the money does not go to the military wing. Suicide bombers cost about $50,000 each, with most of the money allocated to the family of the bomber.
Instead, the lion's share of Hamas funds is intended to maintain the large social welfare infrastructure of the organization. Hamas has 50 kindergartens in the Gaza Strip alone and children are taught to sing praises to suicide bombers. In Hamas summer camps, youngsters are given military training and act out suicide bombings.
Under Rentisi's tutelage, Hamas stepped up the recruitment and operation of terrorist cells among Israeli Arabs. This has facilitated the infiltration of Hamas terrorists into Israel.
Rentisi might have been saved from the Israeli missile strike last week. But he realizes that he is an Israeli target. That means his telephone and cellular phone have been tapped. His movements are being monitored. Being a Hamas terrorist leader might mean that Rentisi will have to go underground.
The question for Rentisi is does he give up being the mouth to remain the brains