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THE WORLD / RISING CONFLICT IN THE MIDEAST

Assassination by Israelis Sparks Protests, Outrage

Palestinians demand revenge for the attack on Hamas founder Yassin. World leaders denounce the killing, and the U.S. denies approving it.

March 23, 2004|Mark Magnier and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

GAZA CITY — Israel's assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin sparked international condemnation Monday as tens of thousands of Palestinian protesters flooded the streets here demanding revenge. In Washington, U.S. officials denied advance knowledge of the killing.

As Palestinians followed Yassin's funeral procession along a 15-block stretch of Gaza City, they raised their fists in anger and chanted, "By blood, by soul, we sacrifice for you."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the helicopter attack on the wheelchair-bound Yassin as he left a mosque as an act of self-defense against terrorism.

"This morning, the state of Israel struck at the head of Palestinian terrorist murderers. The ideological essence of this man was one [aim] -- the murder and the killing of Jews wherever they may be, and the destruction of Israel," Sharon told fellow Likud Party members of the Knesset, or parliament. "The war against terrorism isn't over, and it will continue every day and everywhere."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Palestinian deaths -- A March 23 article in Section A incorrectly stated that more than 2,750 Palestinians had died in clashes with Israeli troops during the Palestinian uprising. The correct figure is 2,445. The 2,750 figure represents the total number of Palestinians killed in all violence related to the 3 1/2-year uprising.

The Israeli security Cabinet endorsed Yassin's assassination last week -- part of Israel's controversial policy of "targeted killings" of alleged militant leaders -- following a double suicide bombing at the Israeli port of Ashdod that killed 10 workers.

Bush administration officials, who met Monday in Washington with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, denied that the U.S. had advance notice of Israel's assassination plan. While U.S. officials described Yassin's killing as "not helpful," they also reiterated what they called Israel's right to self-defense.

"Hamas is a terrorist organization," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "Sheik Yassin was personally involved in terrorism."

European Union leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the assassination, saying it would further harm efforts to settle the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Such actions are not only contrary to international law, but they do not do anything to help the search for a peaceful solution," Annan said.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw labeled the action "unjustified," and Javier Solana, foreign policy chief of the European Union, said the move would hurt peace efforts.

Palestinian officials said they planned to protest to the United Nations Security Council over what they see as Israel's escalation of the conflict.

"What happened today was very dangerous. Even more dangerous is what may follow from this operation," said Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei, speaking to reporters following a Cabinet meeting devoted almost solely to the attack.

Grief, Rage in Gaza

On the streets of Gaza, people poured out of their homes to mourn Yassin's death and promise vengeance.

From the Al Omari mosque on the street where Yassin was killed to the cemetery where he was buried, men waved flags and banners of Palestinian resistance groups -- the green of Hamas mixing with the trademark yellow of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, black of Islamic Jihad and red of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- as van-mounted speakers urged people to remember the "martyrs" and masked militants fired Kalashnikovs in the air.

"All Palestinians are joined as one today," said Amir Gazawi, 42 and unemployed, looking out over the sea of faces. "Israel may have tanks. They may have Apache helicopters and F-16s. But we have our blood, our dignity and our beliefs. And they can't kill that."

"We are going to defend ourselves and continue our armed struggle," said Mahmoud Zahar, a physician and Hamas political leader, walking in the crowd. "Even if they kill all the Palestinian people, the next generation will spring up to fight."

Zahar and Abdulaziz Rantisi, a top-level Hamas spokesman who survived an Israeli assassination attempt last summer and has spent much of the time since in hiding, took the risky step of appearing in public at the funeral.

An Israeli surveillance drone circled overhead as Yassin's banner-draped casket passed through the densely packed streets on the shoulders of young men. Mourners surged forward to touch the casket. The smell of petroleum emanated from clumps of ash and steel wires, the remnants of tires that people had burned every few hundred feet on the road after learning about the Israeli attack.

Yassin was fired upon by an Israeli helicopter as he left early morning prayers. The missile attack also killed seven other people including, Yassin's two bodyguards.

Following Monday's attack, security remained tight around Israel. The government barred Palestinians from entering from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and stepped up precautions at Israeli facilities abroad. The Gaza Strip is already under tight control; unlike the West Bank, it is completely enclosed by a fence and the Mediterranean Sea.

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