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Hamas Leader Slain

Founder of Hamas Dies in Israeli Strike

Sheik Ahmed Yassin is hit by missiles outside a Gaza mosque. Crowds of Palestinians chant, 'Revenge!' and the U.S. urges calm on all sides.

March 22, 2004|Ken Ellingwood and Fayed abu Shammalah | Special to The Times

GAZA CITY — Missiles fired from an Israeli military helicopter killed Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin early today, striking down the highest-profile symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel in the Gaza Strip and prompting furious threats of massive retaliation from his militant group.

Yassin, a quadriplegic who used a wheelchair, was on his way home from dawn prayers at a Gaza City mosque when the strike occurred. Witnesses said the helicopter fired two missiles, killing Yassin and seven other people. More than a dozen others were injured.

As news of Yassin's death spread, thousands of Palestinians made their way to the scene, where blood stained the sidewalk amid shattered glass from smashed storefronts. Some people searched the ground for remnants of Yassin's body. The crowd chanted, "Revenge! Revenge!" and Hamas militants fired weapons in the air.

The assassination comes less than a week after Israeli officials threatened a heightened offensive against militants following a suicide bombing at the seaport of Ashdod.

Palestinians lashed out at Israel for targeting a spiritual leader and promised to strike back. Within an hour of the attack, Israeli forces around the country were placed on alert in anticipation of a possible response.

Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader, said: "The Zionist enemy today breached all the boundaries and borders. Today it got the Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was a symbol for the [Palestinian] nation and its dignity."

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei called the strike "cowardly and dangerous" and said it threatened to escalate the cycle of violence. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat declared three days of mourning, and a funeral for Yassin was planned this afternoon.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said the administration was in touch with Palestinian and Israeli officials.

"We urge all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

In hitting Yassin, Israel struck down the head of a group whose fighters have been responsible for many of the dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians since the latest Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began 42 months ago. But many Palestinians regarded Yassin as a moderating influence inside the movement, which in addition to its military wing runs hospitals and schools that offer critical services to thousands of Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

But Israeli officials said Yassin was instrumental in Hamas' violent activities.

"There's no difference between a military leader and a political leader," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli military spokeswoman. "Yassin is the man behind the phenomenon of suicide bombers and behind the murders of so many Israelis."

Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim told Israel Radio: "I have long since said that Yassin's blood is forfeit, that neither he nor his friends are immune. He and others lead the group of vipers that head the murderous Palestinian Hamas terror against us. With such sane ones, who needs lunatics?"

Boim defended the strike, saying, "So long as this terror continues, it is our duty to continue confronting it and strike at terror until we bring security to the state of Israel. It won't be possible to talk before this terror stops. So long as it continues, we will not return to the negotiating table."

It was Israel's second recent attempt to kill Yassin, 67, under its controversial policy of "targeted killings" of militant leaders. In September, he survived a bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft on a Gaza City building where he was meeting with other Hamas officials.

In January, following a suicide bombing that killed four Israelis at the main crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, Boim warned that Yassin was "marked for death." But no attempt had been made to assassinate him in the two months since. Israel accused Yassin of approving the suicide attack, which marked the first time that Hamas had employed a female bomber.

In his wheelchair, Yassin cut a withered figured beneath his customary white head scarf. Despite the previous attempts on his life and the threats against others, he remained defiantly in the public eye, saying that if the Israelis wanted to kill him, they could. He openly attended mosque, helped along by a retinue of aides and bodyguards, and often spoke to reporters after prayers.

Analysts said the killing was sure to invite a response from Hamas, and possibly other militant groups.

"It is obvious that the revenge for a figure of such importance will have to come," said Yohanan Tzoref, a counter-terrorism expert, "but it is too soon to know when, where, what kind."

Tzoref said the most likely candidate to assume Yassin's role within Hamas was the group's spokesman, Abdulaziz Rantisi, who survived an Israeli airstrike last year.

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