Rantisi was born in 1947 in Yibna, near Jaffa (now known as Yavneh, Israel). His family became refugees during the 1948 war and fled to Gaza where he was brought up in Khan Younis refugee camp. For the first four years he lived with his family in a tent before moving into an abandoned school building. He ended up in an UNRWA-built house. He started working at the age of six to supplement his father’s income.
Following his education at an UNRWA secondary school, Rantisi trained to be a pediatrician at Alexandria University in Egypt. While studying in Egypt he became a committed member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Upon completing his degree, he returned to Gaza in 1972 and founded the Gaza Islamic Centre in 1973. In 1974 he returned to Alexandria for a Master’s in pediatrics. Upon his return to Gaza in 1976 he taught parasitology and genetics at the Islamic University. He was married to Jamila Abdullah Taha al-Shanti, who was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006.
Hamas was formed shortly after the start of the first Intifada in 1987, and Rantisi rose to prominence during the uprising. In December 1992, Rantisi was deported to southern Lebanon, as part of the group of 416 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives. He emerged as general spokesmen of these expelled Palestinians.
He was arrested upon his return in 1993, but later released. He was also detained many times over longer periods by the Palestinian Authority (PA) for his criticism of the PA and of Arafat. Since his return to a public position in Hamas, he has remained one of the main opponents to any cease-fire.
After Sheikh Yassin’s return to Gaza in October 1997 as part of a prisoner exchange. Rantisi worked closely with him to restore hierarchical command and reorganize Hamas. Following the assassination of Salah Shehadeh and Ibrahim Macadma, he became the political head and spiritual leader of Hamas, while remaining its principle spokesperson.
In April 1998, Rantisi was arrested by the PA, after calling for the resignation of its leaders, whom he accused of collaborating with Israel in killing a Hamas militant. He was held in custody without trial for 20 months. He was accused of involvement in the killing of Mohieddin Sharif. He was arrested again in July 2000 after calling the Palestinian participation in the Camp David talks an act of treason. He was released in December 2000. He was intermittently re-arrested by the PA. After public opposition, the PA settled for holding him under house arrest.
On June 6, 2003, Rantisi broke off discussions with PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who had called for an end to ‘armed resistance’. On June 8, 2003, Rantisi was responsible for directing the Hamas led attack in which four Israeli soldiers were killed at the Erez Checkpoint in the Gaza Strip. In response, the Israelis launched a helicopter attack against a car in which he was traveling on June 10, 2003. He was lightly wounded in the assassination attempt, which killed two civilians and wounded 30.
In January 2004, Rantisi offered a “ten-year truce” with Israel, in return for “withdrawal and the establishment of a state.”
Rantisi was named leader of Hamas in Gaza after the assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Rantisi himself was assassinated by the Israeli army after they fired hellfire missiles targeting his car on April 17, 2004. Two others were killed in the attack, and four bystanders were wounded.