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THE WORLD / RISING CONFLICT IN THE MIDEAST

Yassin's Killing Is Called an Insult to Islamic World

Unrest may spread as thousands in Arab nations turn out for protests and mourning. Hamas threatens to retaliate beyond Israel.

March 23, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Cries for revenge sounded from the university campuses of the Persian Gulf to the shores of the eastern Mediterranean on Monday after Israel killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a spiritual leader and symbol of Palestinian resistance revered throughout the Islamic world.

As Arabs hardened against the possibility of conciliation with Israel, Hamas threatened to retaliate beyond Israel's borders, deepening fears that unrest could overflow to other countries.

By killing Yassin, Israel bruised the two most sensitive spots in the collective Arab sensibility: the sanctity of Islam and the plight of the Palestinians. Many Arabs said they were revolted at the idea of Israeli pilots flying U.S. aircraft over a mosque and killing the 67-year-old quadriplegic with a missile.

"This is an insult to everybody all over the Islamic world. Everybody has to take a stand now," said Abdul Latif Arabiyat, a member of Jordan's Islamic Action Front and a former parliament speaker. "Nobody can say, 'I'm civilized, but I'll be silent.' After this crime, the word 'peace' has lost its meaning."

Thousands turned out to protest and mourn in Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq. Families clustered around their televisions as Arabic satellite channels aired live, sunrise-to-sunset coverage of the assassination's aftermath and Yassin's funeral.

Students at Cairo's universities spilled into the streets crying, "When [Israeli leader Ariel] Sharon crosses the line, we must kill him and his soldiers!"

Meanwhile, in a rare show of public frustration, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the strike "regrettable and cowardly." Asked about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which Egypt has been trying to kick-start for more than a year, he scoffed: "What peace process? ... With this act we have aborted the peace process."

A short time later, Mubarak canceled a controversial trip to the Jewish state by members of his government, who were to celebrate the anniversary of Egypt's chilly peace with Israel.

Prodded by the United States, which gives Egypt about $2 billion a year in aid, Mubarak has labored to broker peace among his northern neighbors. But the talks have repeatedly failed. Meanwhile, popular opinion in Egypt has grown ever more outraged and ashamed of the country's dealings with Israel.

Demonstrators "are calling to cut all ties to Israel, and they're even calling for revenge," said Egyptian analyst Dia Rashwan. "This will put the Egyptian government under more pressure, and we don't know how much pressure the government can support. It's very dangerous now, not only in Egypt but all over the region."

Jordan's King Abdullah II was also caught between his efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and the anger of his people, who demonstrated in the streets of Amman.

"We are annoyed and pained by what happened despite our arduous and persistent efforts with all sides, including the Israeli government, to refrain from its policy of military escalation," he told the state-run Petra news agency.

In the Arab street, Yassin was seen not as the fearsome terrorist that Israel and the U.S. described him as, but a proud Muslim fighter degraded by age and suffering, whose physical frailty symbolized the struggle of the Palestinians.

"They look at him as a helpless man who couldn't even move, like a baby," said Adnan abu Odeh, a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations. "He was only a symbol, and killing the symbol, a helpless creature, was really horrible."

In a region that has been somewhat dulled into a quiet distress by the grinding bloodshed of the 42-month Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, Yassin's slaying drew dormant outrage back to the surface. With peace plans stalled, the U.S. presidential election looming and Iraq absorbing the bulk of international attention, many Arabs have despaired of finding an end to the fighting.

Yet the Palestinian intifada remains the sensitive epicenter of politics and religion in the Arab world. It persists as a crisis that mesmerizes people in a way that surpasses even the U.S. war in Iraq. To many Arabs, the plight of the Palestinians crystallizes a profound sense of Muslim persecution, anti-American anger and a shamed frustration with their own regimes, which many people believe lack the power or will to stand up to Israel and the United States.

"This death is central to every Muslim," said Mohsen Awajy, a Saudi lawyer. "The anger is not only directed at Israel, but at George Bush. This means the anger may be extended to reach some American interests."

In Iraq, demonstrators took to the streets of Baghdad and Mosul, chanting, "Wait, wait, Jews, Muhammad's army is coming!" "Revenge, revenge from the thieves!" and "God is greatest. Oh Arabs, Palestine is raped!" Some of the protesters compared their troubles under U.S. occupation to the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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