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The ‘Lion of Palestine’: Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi (23 October 1947-17 April 2004)

April 17, 2023 at 3:38 pm

Newly-declared Hamas leader Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi speaks to female supporters, during his visit to the family house of former Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on March 24, 2004 in Gaza City, Gaza strip. Rantissi was injured in an Israeli helicopter attack on April 17, 2004 and later died of his wounds in hospital, according to hospital officials [Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images]

The assassination of Dr Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi, a prominent Palestinian resistance leader, marked a significant set-back for the Palestinian cause. Rantisi was one of the seven co-founders of the Hamas movement in the early days of the First Intifada and was known for his unwavering commitment to advocating for the rights of the Palestinian people and resisting the illegal occupation, earning him the nickname the “Lion of Palestine.”

On 17 April 2004, less than a month after the martyrdom of Hamas’ elderly, wheelchair-bound spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Rantisi was also killed by the Israeli military in a targeted assassination; he was 56 years old. His killing undermined Hamas’ operational capabilities and created a temporary power vacuum in the Gaza-based movement.

Born in 1947 in the now depopulated Palestinian village of Yibna, the year before the Nakba, Rantisi was six-months old when he and his family were forced to seek refuge in the Gaza Strip as a result of Israel’s establishment. They were among the thousands of displaced Palestinians. Rantisi, along with his 11 siblings, grew up in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, witnessing the injustices faced by his people under Israeli military occupation. The death of his uncle at the hands of Israeli soldiers would also have a lasting impact on the young Rantisi, aged nine at the time.

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As an outstanding student, having attended UNRWA schools, Rantisi obtained a scholarship to study medicine at Egypt’s Alexandria University where he graduated as a doctor in 1971. His views would be shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood during his time in the country. After graduating, he initially worked as a doctor in Khan Yunis before returning to Alexandria to specialise in paediatrics, earning a master’s degree in 1976 and then resuming his work in Gaza, becoming the head of paediatrics at Nasir Hospital.

However, in 1983 his role at the hospital would be terminated by the Israeli occupation authorities and he was arrested for the first time that year after one of his first stints in anti-occupation activism, which was to organise a campaign to withhold paying taxes to the occupation authorities. In 1987, he and six other Brotherhood members went on to form the Hamas organisation. As a result of his activism, he was arrested numerous times and jailed for several years owing, it was in prison where he committed to memorising the Quran and was among hundreds of resistance figures expelled to Southern Lebanon in 1992.

As a qualified paediatrician and with his fluency in English, Rantisi soon became Hamas’ spokesperson for the exiled and a recognisable face for foreign and in particular western media outlets.

Upon returning to occupied-Palestine, he continued his activism but was also a vocal critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) over its rampant corruption and compromising stance with Israel. In addition to receiving another prison sentence at the hands of the Israelis, Rantisi was also arrested on numerous occasions by the PA.

As a marked man, there were several attempts on his life and the eventual slaying of Rantisi was not the first blow to the Palestinian resistance movement. Prior to his assassination, he had already experienced the loss of his close comrade and mentor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Rantisi and Sheikh Yassin shared a close relationship, with the doctor widely seen as the sheikh’s protege. The loss of Sheikh Yassin was a significant blow to Rantisi and the Palestinian resistance movement as a whole.

However, Rantisi did not waver in his commitment to the cause, and he continued to lead the movement while refusing to live in hiding. While mourning the loss of Sheikh Yassin, weeks before his own demise, Rantisi defiantly said: “It’s death, whether by killing or by cancer. Nothing will change. If by Apache or by cardiac arrest, I prefer Apache.”

His words would prove premonitory, as he – along with a bodyguard and his 27-year-old son Mohammed – were killed in an Israeli Apache helicopter missile strike directed against the car he was travelling in. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans took part in their funeral procession with symbolic funerals held across the occupied West Bank.

Assassinations of Palestinian resistance leaders and activists by the Israeli military is a long-standing policy, despite such actions being condemned by the international community as extrajudicial killings and a violation of human rights. They became more commonplace after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and were sanctioned by the Israeli Supreme Court following the 2006 ruling in the Targeted Killing case, which reversed a 2002 decision that initially deemed the policy “non-justiciable”.

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Nevertheless, the loss of Rantisi, along with Sheikh Yassin and many other Palestinian leaders, serves as a stark reminder of the occupation state’s inability to kill the will to resist, in spite of the on-going practise of state-sanctioned executions and threats to carry them out against contemporary leaders.

The power vacuum left by the killings of Rantisi, Sheikh Yassin and senior leader Ismail Abu Shanab, a year earlier, also inadvertently placed more control in the hands of the movement’s leaders in exile in Syria at the time, and in turn aligned the movement closer with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Current events in Israel coupled with growing fears of a third Palestinian uprising, have also exposed the limitations of this policy.