Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of six founders of Hamas, which opposes any peace agreement with Israel, narrowly escaped the two Apache helicopters that chased his zigzagging Mitsubishi SUV along a residential street, firing missiles along the way.
Rantisi jumped from his vehicle after one missile just missed and another hit the hood. Seconds later, another missile strike turned the vehicle into a charred pile of twisted metal and left a small, blackened crater in the asphalt. Rantisi disappeared down a side street, his left leg bleeding from a wound.
A bodyguard who became entangled in his seat belt and a female bystander were killed. An 8-year-old girl playing in front of her home was critically injured. A dozen others were showered with glass from an apartment building where windows were shattered by the explosions.
President Bush, through a spokesman, said yesterday in Washington that the attempt on Rantisi's life "does not contribute to the security of Israel."
Rantisi, a 55-year-old pediatrician, addressed a message to Israelis during a telephone interview from a hide-out, where he was rushed after briefly undergoing surgery at Shifa Hospital.
"I know you are suffering," he said. "But you are suffering because of the aggression of your leadership. You are paying the price for the terrorist acts of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government."
Israeli tanks and helicopters later fired into northern Gaza, killing three Palestinians and wounding more than two dozen, wire services reported. The Israeli military said the attack was in response to Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.
The strike on Rantisi took place as Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas tried to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas and other militant groups, apparently ending any chance of such an agreement being reached.
Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, denounced the attack as a "criminal and terrorist" act. Israeli officials defended it, saying that Abbas' attempts to achieve a truce were failing, mostly because of objections by Rantisi, and they accused him of "directing the policy of the Hamas terrorist attacks."
"The Palestinian Authority has been well aware of Rantisi's activities for some time, but is taking no action to stop them," said Yuval Shteinitz, head of the foreign affairs and defense committee in Israel's parliament. "We are fed up with hearing condemnations. Abbas preferred to talk to the terrorists rather than jail them."
Sharon, speaking to Israeli army veterans last night, vowed to "continue to fight the heads of the extremist terrorist organizations - those who initiate, those who fund and those who send terrorists to kill Jews."
But critics said the missile strike unnecessarily fueled a conflict that Israel is trying to end and could doom the U.S.-backed Middle East peace plan, known as the "road map."
Israeli parliament member Matan Vilnai of the opposition Labor Party, said: "At this time, we shouldn't have hit Rantisi unless he was carrying a suicide belt and was on the way to an attack."
The Israeli military has targeted and killed 104 suspected Palestinian militants during the 32-month conflict, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem. Rantisi is the highest-ranking Hamas leader targeted thus far, and the strike set off cries for revenge and threats of more attacks in Israeli cities.
"We will continue with our holy war and resistance until every last criminal Zionist is evicted from this land," Rantisi told the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera.
Rantisi emerged this week as the point man against Abbas, who has called for an end to the uprising. Abbas is struggling to win support among Palestinians who are unconvinced that returning to negotiations is the best path toward creation of an independent state.
In recent days, Rantisi had made harsh comments on radio and television accusing Abbas of surrendering to Israel. On Sunday, Hamas and two other militant factions claimed joint responsibility for killing four Israeli soldiers at a border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Rantisi said the joint attack was meant to demonstrate that Palestinians are unified in their opposition to the peace plan.
The attack on Rantisi's life will certainly make Abbas' job more difficult.
"Israel succeeded to assassinate Abu Mazen," another Hamas founder, Mahmoud al-Zahar, said in an interview yesterday. "They undermined him as a leader and ruined any hope for his government.
"Even people who are members of the Palestinian government are today changing their minds and will speak the language of resistance," he said. "If I were Abu Mazen, I would resign. Is it logical to talk of a cease-fire? It is logical to talk of resistance. Every person in Israel should condemn these acts because they are going to pay a price."
Abbas said in a statement that the Israeli attack was meant to "obstruct and sabotage the political process." He accused Sharon of trying to derail "international efforts to revive the peace process in order to escape from its responsibilities."
Abbas urged U.S. officials to intervene. He promised to continue pushing armed Palestinian factions to enter into a cease-fire without resorting to confrontations that could lead to civil war.
"We will not allow blatant Israeli attempts to create internal conflict between our people," he said.
Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian Cabinet minister responsible for talks with the militant groups, said yesterday that further negotiations would be useless.
"We can't have a cease-fire now," he said. "There is no use in even talking about a truce as long as Israel continues its assassinations."
Rantisi helped establish Hamas, an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, in 1987. Israel expelled him to Lebanon in 1992, and he was allowed to return in 1993.
Palestinian Authority police have arrested Rantisi several times for speaking out against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and for inciting violence during times of relative calm with Israel.
Rantisi is considered one of the most radical Hamas leaders, more so than the group's spiritual head, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and other co-founders, such as Zahar and Ismail Abu Shanab. The group opposes peace with Israel and a two-state solution, both supported by the Palestinian Authority.
Before yesterday, Israel had all but ignored these men, concentrating more on leaders of Hamas' armed faction, commanded by Mohammed Deif, who has survived several assassination attempts by Israel, the most recent in September.
In interviews, Rantisi has always expressed support for suicide bombers - his organization has sent 72 into Israel in the past 32 months, killing 227 people - but he has always disavowed any connection to the group's military wing.
Rantisi said yesterday that he left his house around 10:30 a.m. after receiving a call on his cell phone from another doctor who wanted to meet at a hospital. He said he believes the Israelis intercepted his conversation and knew where he was going.
His vehicle was on Tarek Ben Ziad Street when helicopters appeared overhead. Witnesses said the driver veered from one side of the road to the other to avoid being hit. The first missile hit the street just behind the car, peppering the car with flying metal.
The vehicle continued to speed up the road as another missile also missed. But the driver was forced to a halt at Nasser Street when a white Mercedes blocked the way. Rantisi, his son and the driver managed to escape as a third missile hit just in front of the car.