Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israelis -- not Americans -- will be the targets of Hamas terror attacks, a high-ranking leader of the group said on Wednesday. He spoke hours after the U.S. issued a travel advisory urging Americans to leave the Gaza Strip and postpone travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hamas leaders seemed to backtrack from earlier statements, in which they accused the U.S. of consenting to Israel's targeted killing of the group's spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The Hamas leaders said Americans "must take responsibility for this crime" and called on Muslims worldwide to join in retaliation.
Yassin was killed early Monday morning in a targeted Israeli missile strike. The 68-year-old founder and leader of Hamas was accused by Israel of being involved in or inspiring terror attacks in which 377 Israelis have been murdered since September 2000, nearly 300 of them in suicide bomb attacks.
The State Department updated its travel advisory for the region on Wednesday in light of the killing of Yassin. The advisory urged all U.S. citizens to leave Gaza "as early as it is safe to do so" and advised Americans to defer travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Americans were urged to leave the Gaza Strip last October after U.S. diplomatic convoy was targeted in a roadside bomb attack there that left three American security personnel dead.
President Bush expressed his concern that terrorist groups, including Hamas, had plans to target Americans.
"There are still serious threats because of what we stand for," Bush said on Tuesday. "There are still people who want to harm our country. And so whether it be a Hamas threat or an al Qaeda threat, we take them very seriously."
The newly appointed leader of Hamas, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, 56, called for revenge against Israeli targets.
"We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation," Rantissi told cheering crowds during his first public appearance since taking charge of the organization.
He was also quoted as saying that there were no orders to carry out attacks against targets outside of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hamas' political leader, Khaled Mashaal, who reportedly is based in Damascus, was also quoted as saying that there were no plans to carry out attacks in the international arena but he did say that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could now be targeted.
"Since the enemy has targeted our leadership...and a big symbol like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, it is the right of the resistance to respond against the big Zionist heads... including Sharon," Mashaal was quoted as saying in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
Both Meshal and Rantissi have survived Israeli assassination attempts on their lives. It was a botched attempt on Meshal's life in Jordan that gained the release of Yassin from Israeli prison in exchange for several of the Israeli agents caught by the Jordanians in connection with the affair.
Rantissi, a pediatrician who speaks fluent English, was a popular spokesman for the group until he was targeted in an Israeli assassination attempt last year, from which he escaped with minor injuries. He said on Wednesday that if he had to choose between dying of a heart attack or in an Israeli missile attack from an Apache helicopter, he'd choose the Apache.
Security sources were quoted by Ha'aretz as saying that heads of Israeli defense had decided to step up targeted killings instead of waiting for further terror attacks.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said on Tuesday that Israel was obliged to keep up its targeted killings of terrorist leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah militias in order to protect Israeli citizens.
Israel's army chief Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon indicated that Israel's targeted killings may be expanded to include Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
When asked about the two, Ya'alon replied that their responses to Yassin's death indicated they must understand that "it's getting closer to them."
In Israel's view, he said, "the decapitation of the terrorist infrastructure is one means among the strategies in the war against terrorism."
In related news, the Israeli army thwarted an attempt to infiltrate a Gaza Strip settlement overnight. Two armed Palestinians were shot dead overnight as they crawled toward the Israeli settlement of Morag overnight, the Israeli army said. The two had been wearing Israeli army uniforms and were armed with automatic weapons.
Also a small contingent of Israeli troops raided the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Khan Younis from where numerous mortars have been fired at Israeli communities.
According to the army, during the last 48 hours there have been more than 30 shooting attacks and about 10 mortar shells and 20 anti-tank missiles fired from that area.
E-mail a news tip to David Thibault.