GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The militant group Hamas
backed off its initial threats against the United States, saying
yesterday that it would focus on attacking Israel — and try
to kill Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — in retaliation for the
assassination of its founder in an Israeli missile strike.

The Syrian-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, addressed
mourners in a Gaza City soccer stadium by telephone hookup
yesterday, promising victory over Israel and appealing for
Palestinian unity. “Who is America and who is this ugly world
and who is Sharon and who is Mofaz?” Mashaal said in a show
of contempt. Shaul Mofaz is Israel’s defense minister.

Despite Hamas’ threats, militants appear to have trouble
carrying out immediate revenge attacks. Israel has been on the
highest possible alert since the killing of Hamas founder Ahmed
Yassin on Monday.

Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and
other attacks in recent years. Altogether, since violence erupted
in 2000, more than 2,700 people have been killed on the Palestinian
side and more than 950 on the Israeli side.

Late yesterday, several Israeli tanks moved back into an area of
the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza where some structures
were razed in a similar operation a day earlier, residents said.
The military had no immediate comment.

In the West Bank, a 16-year-old Palestinian was caught at an
Israeli roadblock with a bomb vest strapped to his body. Soldiers
jumped behind barricades, and a dramatic standoff ensued. After
persuading the youth to take off the vest, troops sent a robot to
deliver scissors and he cut off the vest. The teen’s brother
said the boy is gullible and easily manipulated.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed responsibility for
sending the youth, a resident of the West Bank city of Nablus.

The new Hamas leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, yesterday
backed off veiled threats the group made against the United States
following Yassin’s killing. And another Hamas leader in Gaza
also said Americans were not a target.

Immediately after the missile strike, Hamas’ military
wing, Izzedine al Qassam, said it held the United States
responsible because of its support for Israel, and that “all
the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation
for this crime.”

President Bush said Tuesday that the United States takes the
threat seriously. Yesterday, State Department deputy spokesman Adam
Ereli said the United States remains concerned about the safety of
Americans in the region. And a senior Bush administration official,
asking not to be identified, said the credibility of
yesterday’s disavowal cannot be assured.

Rantisi, a 56-year-old trained pediatrician, told reporters
yesterday the group is not interested in exporting its activities
and that Hamas’s attacks will be aimed solely at Israel.
“We are inside Palestinian land and acting only inside
Palestinian land. We are resisting the occupation, nothing
else,” he said. “Our resistance will continue just
inside our border, here inside our country.”

Another Hamas leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, also said Americans
have nothing to fear from Hamas. “You are people innocent of
the Zionist conspiracy that is fooling you and is stealing your
money. You are not our target,” he said. Zahar said Israel is
doomed and will disappear. “Israel knows that the vision of
the Muslim victory is coming, and the blood of martyrs will be a
fire that will burn the ground beneath you,” he said.

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