Hamas leaders vowed Monday to "cut off" the head of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after their spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was killed in a missile strike by Israeli helicopter gunships in Gaza City.
"Sharon has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head," leaders of the radical Islamic group vowed.
"Words cannot describe the emotion of anger and hate inside our hearts," said Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, a close associate of Yassin in Gaza. He said that "the enemy should expect a response that will turn the ground under his feet to hell ... All of Palestine will turn into a volcano that will burn up the enemies."
Top Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi said "Yassin is a man in a nation, and a nation in a man. And the retaliation of this nation, will be of the size of this man. You will see deeds not words." Rantisi himself was wounded in an Israeli airstrike in June 2003, when a helicopter launched missiles at his car.
The group vowed that Islamic groups around the world will join together to retaliate for the assassination and implied that the United States could be a target.
"The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without getting the consent of the terrorist American Administration, and it must take responsibility for this crime," Hamas said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press. "All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in on the retaliation for this crime," the statement said.
The threat against the United States would represent a change of tactics for the militant group, which has always said its fight was with Israel and not with the United States.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, many in tears, poured into the streets of Gaza City immediately after the strike. Gunmen fired into the air and militants threw dozens of pipe-bombs to express their outrage. The Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group connected to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, declared war on Israelis in response to the assassination. "War, war, war on the sons of Zion. An eye for an eye. There will be a response within hours, God willing," the group said in a statement.
The armed wing of Fatah said in a statement that "he who signed the order to assassinate Yassin has effectively signed the death warrant of hundreds of Israelis." It said that all Zionists, both in Israel and abroad, is now an assassination target for the organization.
PA officials condemned the attack. "This is a crazy and very dangerous act. It opens the door wide to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act," said Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
"Assassinations, incursions, walls, will not produce peace and security, on the contrary, it will just add fuel to the fire," said Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.