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Hamas Leader, Hunted by Israel, Says 'Netanyahu Is Seeking War'

Hiding is not the strong suit of Abdul-Aziz Rantissi, a political leader of the Islamic resistance movement, Hamas, who figures high on Israel's list of suspected terrorists.

Unlike leaders of most shadowy anti-peace groups in the Middle East - especially those, like Hamas, whose military branches claim responsibility for a string of suicide bomb attacks in Israel - Mr. Rantissi operates openly.

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His house sits along a lone, sand road on the edge of Gaza's second city, and his name is painted in large letters on a sign above the entrance. He jokes that when he comes home late at night, he makes an easy target for an Israeli snatch team.

But Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last month raised his profile further. At a "national unity" conference, he embraced Rantissi and others who call for violence to thwart peace with Israel. Mr. Arafat told Palestinians that "all options remain open for us," and spoke about a second intifadah, or uprising, against the Jewish state. Israelis condemned this as the "kiss of death" for Arafat.

"I believe it was the kiss of life for the Palestinian people," counters Rantissi in an interview that lent insight into the views of militants who do not support any compromise with Israel.

Rantissi says that Hamas support has grown since Israel imposed a clampdown on Palestinian territories after a July 30 bombing in Jerusalem, and now measures "about half" of the population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Arafat must make a choice between "peace with Israel, or peace with Hamas." For Rantissi, that is a perfect dilemma that can only enhance his call to arms.

"Netanyahu is day and night giving us proof that he is seeking war and not peace," he says, his eyes ringed darkly with fatigue. "He is building settlements, destroying our homes, changing the demography of Jerusalem, closing Gaza and the West Bank, and depriving our people of their daily needs.

"Our land is under occupation, and we suffered a lot from the Israelis, so Hamas and other militant groups are defending our people and resisting that occupation," he says. "We say to our people, 'Enough is enough, we will keep up the struggle.' "

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Such anti-peace voices were rarely heard in the past year, after Arafat's security forces swept through Palestinian areas arresting extremists and suspected militants. Nearly 1,000 people were thrown into jail then, but barely more than 100 remain behind bars.

And for all the Israeli talk about controlling terror, Rantissi himself was let out of an Israeli prison a few months ago. He says he waits to be arrested - or worse - at any time, but has refused an offer of "security."

"I expect to be killed, but I am not afraid because I believe that God is satisfied," he says.

Rantissi also says he draws strength from his interpretation of the Koran, in which, he claims, a prophecy says that Jews would occupy Palestine and make a strong state. Muslims would come from everywhere to topple the state.

"I can see this before my eyes," Rantissi says, "so my optimism comes from the future victory."

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