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Jerrold Kessel: Fallout from Israeli strike

CNN's Jerrold Kessel

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Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas condemns the attack that killed four Israeli soldiers.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel fired rockets Tuesday at a vehicle in Gaza City carrying one of the most widely known political figures of Hamas -- a departure from past operations that have targeted the militant group's military leaders.

Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantissi was wounded and two others killed in the Israeli helicopter strike, Palestinian sources said.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel discussed the implications for the Mideast peace process with CNN Anchor Carol Costello.

KESSEL: Abdel Aziz Rantissi [is] now undergoing surgery at Gaza's Shifa Hospital, but he's reported to be in stable condition, the public face ... of Hamas, very much a spokesman and very much a leader of the militant Islamic group.

Its political wing certainly was targeted by the Israeli helicopter gunships, who fired at least five, perhaps as many seven, missiles at Mr. Rantissi's car in a busy area of Gaza City [on Tuesday] morning.

The car was struck, but he had managed to escape after the first missile hit the car apparently. Three of his bodyguards and his son were with him in the car.

Now, as the Palestinians continue to absorb the message delivered here by Israel, the political ramifications and the fallout from this attack continue to reverberate all around the area.

Mr. Rantissi was known as a hard-liner in Hamas. He had stood up for the continuation of attacks on Israel and against the Palestinian Authority's prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who was seen by Mr. Rantissi and many in Hamas as too conciliatory.

But now this has placed Mr. Abbas, and his attempts to get a cease-fire in the attacks on Israel, in a very difficult situation.

And we've had a very strong response from a member of Mr. Abbas' Cabinet.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a leading Cabinet minister in the Palestinian Authority, said: "This is an attack against the 'road map' [peace process]. This is an attack against the efforts of George Bush.

"This is an attack that aims to destroy the efforts that are being made by the Palestinian government in order to start a Palestinian national dialogue and to reach an agreement with different Palestinian factions concerning a truce and ending violence."

We understand that members of Mr. Abbas' bureau have been in touch with officials in Washington to urge the United States to intervene right away, to condemn this attack, which the Palestinian Authority is condemning outrightly as an act of terror and a very damaging move for the peace prospects.

And it will be interesting to see how Washington responds to this, because only on the weekend U.S. officials were describing Hamas as a terror organization again and saying it is an enemy of peace.

Will they make a distinction, the United States, of the fact that this is, you could say, a political leader or not a member of Hamas' military wing, whom the Israelis have targeted?

[This is] a very delicate moment for this newly launched peace initiative.

COSTELLO: And, Jerrold, it seems like the cycle of violence will continue. A senior Hamas official has already come out and vowed severe punishment to Israel because of this. Isn't that right?

KESSEL: Absolutely. Just within the last hour we heard from Hamas officials vowing that Israel will not go unpunished.

But clearly, Hamas had not really given up its attacks on Israel even before this -- since the summit last week, that launching of the peace initiative. On Sunday, there was an attack in the West Bank town -- the disputed West Bank town of Hebron, the divided town, where an Israeli was killed before the two militants were killed. And down in Gaza, Hamas was one of three militant organizations that carried out an attack on an Israeli military post. ... Four Israeli soldiers were killed there.

Hamas has said -- even after the Palestinian prime minister had said he was committed to getting an end to the armed struggle -- Hamas had said no, it was bound to continue the struggle against Israel, including the attacks.

Now this puts the ball back in Mr. Abbas' court and perhaps also in the court of the U.S. administration.

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