Even before the body of Abdel Aziz Rantissi had been laid to rest, the radical Islamist movement announced it had filled the vacuum left by Dr Al Rantissi’s death in a helicopter strike which came almost four weeks after the movement’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin met a similar fate.
But in a nod to the power of the movement’s Damascus-based politburo chief, Hamas said “after the call of Khaled Meshaal we have decided not the name of Dr Al Rantissi’s successor”.
Dr Al Rantissi’s killing on Saturday night has served to cement Meshaal’s position as undisputed leader.
Dr Al Rantissi himself had conceded he was number two in the pecking order: “I am the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but Khaled Meshaal is the top leader of Hamas.”
Israel rapidly made clear it regarded Mr Meshaal as a legitimate target, with one cabinet minister saying that he would meet “an identical fate” to Dr Al Rantissi.
“When the opportunity comes to strike at Damascus, we will do it,” parliamentary affairs minister Gideon Ezra was quoted as saying by army radio.
While his foreign base may complicate Israel’s efforts to pursue its quarry, Meshaal knows full well that it does not guarantee his immunity.
He was the target of a bungled assassination attempt in September 1997, when agents from Israel’s Mossad secret service injected him with poison on a street in the Jordanian capital Amman.
He fell into a coma and a furious King Hussein demanded Israel hand over the antidote if it wanted the captured agents to be freed.
The episode forced the then Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, to release Sheikh Yassin from prison.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed he does not regard Syria off-limits when he ordered an air strike on a suspected militant training base near Damascus after a massive suicide bombing in northern Israel last October.
The announcement that the identity of Dr Al Rantissi’s successor would not be made public has not prevented widespread speculation, with the main focus falling on Mahmud al-Zahar and Ismail Haniya.
Mr Zahar, 59, who like Dr Al Rantissi is a doctor by profession, survived an assassination attempt by Israel last September 10 that cost the life of his eldest son.
Forty-year-old Haniya had served as Sheikh Yassin’s secretary before the latter’s assassination and is the main spokesman for Hamas in its Gaza Strip stronghold.
The two men have both vowed to avenge Dr Al Rantissi’s death.
“The blood of Dr Rantissi will not flow in vain,” Haniya told Hamas followers gathered outside Gaza’s Shifa hospital on Saturday night after his boss died of his wounds.
Meanwhile, the UN’s top human rights forum may hold a special session this week to discuss Dr Al Rantissi’s assassination as it did following the killing last month of the Islamist group’s spiritual leader, a spokesman said yesterday.