Almost 1,500 people in Israel and the occupied territories have been killed in the past year by the armies of an unending war: Palestinian suicide bombers, street fighters and snipers; Israeli soldiers with their tanks and guns. At a time of so much fear and death, the living turn to tough guys for leadership. In Israel, that has cemented the popularity of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who led the country's massive military operations against the Palestinians. And for the Palestinians, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the most hard-nosed leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas, has become a straight-talking symbol of resistance to Sharon.
Of the 423 Israelis killed this year, 169 died in Hamas terror attacks mostly vicious suicide bombs on buses and in cafés. The Palestinian death toll clocks in at an appalling 1,034 some gunmen and bombers, but also many innocent victims. The physical reality of this deadly time is written in Sharon's bulky strength and Rantisi's fiery scowl.
Sharon, 74, came to power less than two years ago, promising "peace and security." Israelis have had neither. Sharon sent tanks to occupy Palestinian towns; Hamas struck again and again at Israeli civilians and soldiers. Still, the Prime Minister is riding high in the polls and likely to secure a big win for his Likud Party in the Jan. 28 general election. That's because the violence of the last two years has pushed Israelis to the right. Although many Europeans are appalled by Sharon's military incursions into Palestinian towns, Israelis tend to see him as a responsible leader who takes a tough stand against the Palestinians without going so far that he'll jeopardize Israel's important strategic relationship with the U.S. Sharon has transformed himself from one of the most divisive figures in Israeli politics to become the one man behind whom almost everyone in the country can unite. With hopes of a peace deal quashed, Israelis look to him as the politician most capable of leading them through the war.
Though Sharon manages to look like a consensus figure to Israelis, Palestinians see him differently. Rantisi, a 55-year-old Gazan, calls the Israeli Prime Minister "an enemy of humanity." He's certainly an enemy of Hamas. Sharon has made life chancy for men like Rantisi. In the last year, Israel killed at least 12 senior Hamas leaders, though it hasn't targeted Rantisi yet.
A medical doctor who lives in Gaza's Sheik Radwan neighborhood, a Hamas stronghold, Rantisi spent time in Israeli and Palestinian prisons over the years because of his uncompromising opposition to the peace process and his contention that no Muslim can ever agree to a treaty that signs away control of land once ruled by Islam. That reputation for defiance has boosted his popularity during the intifadeh, when most Palestinians have turned against the agreements with Israel signed by Arafat.
Within Hamas, Rantisi has gained sway as rival voices in the movement have been arrested or slain. When he speaks in public, he drops in a poetic dose of the Koran, but mostly his rhetoric is more down-to-earth than that of other Palestinian religious leaders. There are few references to historic battles between the Saracens and the Crusaders, many condemnations of specific Israeli policies. So he has to take precautions. When he marches in a funeral for another Hamas activist or at a political rally, he's sandwiched between two bodyguards.
The growing influence of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, as Rantisi sees it, is part of a broader trend across the globe that puts him at odds not only with Sharon but also with the U.S. government and the West. "I consider this a year of accomplishment for Islamic groups," he says. "I do believe that this century is going to be the century of Islam." With that prediction, it's clear the time of the hard men isn't passed.