Israel Confirms Attack Near Gaza Mosque; Palestinians ProtestJERUSALEM, Monday, March 22 — Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader and founder of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, was killed early Monday by an Israeli missile that struck him as he left a mosque in Gaza City, his family and Hamas officials said. They said at least two bodyguards had been killed with him.
Sheik Yassin, a symbol to Palestinians of resistance to Israel and to Israelis of Palestinian terrorism, was by far the most significant Palestinian militant killed by Israel in more than three years of conflict.
Black smoke curled over Gaza City as Palestinians began burning tires in the streets and demonstrators chanted for revenge. Mosque loudspeakers blared a message across Gaza of mourning for Sheik Yassin in the name of Hamas and another militant group, Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
The Israeli military confirmed the killing, saying in a statement that the sheik was "responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, both Israeli and foreign."
The army said it had targeted a car carrying Sheik Yassin, but Palestinians at the scene said that the Sheik was not in car when he was hit.
The Israeli weapons punctured the pavement of the street where Sheik Yassin, a quadriplegic, was being escorted home. Blood spattered the walls of surrounding buildings. "I could not recognize the sheik, only his wheelchair," said one witness, Maher al-Beek.
In refugee camps like Rafa and Khan Yunis, strongholds of Palestinian militancy, thousands of people took to the streets. Ismail Haniya, a political leader of Hamas, addressed more than a thousand people who gathered outside the autopsy center at Shiffa Hospital in Gaza City.
"You don't have to cry," he said. "You have to be steadfast, and you have to be ready for revenge, because the sheik has implanted the soul and the spirit of martyrdom and courage in your souls."
He said that "the blood of Sheik Yassin will run in the veins of all Palestinians," and predicted that his death would give "more momentum for the liberation of Palestinians from the criminals, the Jews."
Hospital officials said the sheik's body had been smashed in the attack.
Like other political leaders of Hamas, Sheik Yassin denied involvement in planning specific attacks, but Israeli officials said he was directly connected to terrorism.
Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian prime minister, condemned the attack. "This is a crazy and very dangerous act," he said, according to Reuters. "It opens the door wide to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation, and he was controlling Hamas, and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act."
The Israeli Army said it had closed off the Gaza Strip, which is bracketed against the Mediterranean by an Israeli fence, and shut checkpoints that effectively divide it into three sections.
Israel has again stepped up its pressure on militants in Gaza since two Palestinian suicide bombers from a Gaza refugee camp blew themselves up last Sunday at the Israeli port of Ashdod, killing 10 Israelis. That attack was jointly claimed by Hamas and Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades.
The country has also appeared eager to show that a plan announced by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli settlers and soldiers from Gaza did not amount to a victory for Palestinian militants, as some of them had claimed.
Israel tried to kill Sheik Yassin on Sept. 6, dropping a 550-pound bomb on a Gaza apartment building where he was holding a meeting. The sheik escaped with a slight shrapnel wound to his right hand, and 14 other people were wounded. That strike came as Israel declared "all-out war" on the group after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August.
On Jan. 16, the Israeli deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, said Sheik Yassin was "marked for death" by Israel.
"He should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night," Mr. Boim said at the time. "And we will find him in the tunnels, and we will eliminate him."
Sheik Yassin responded: "We do not fear death threats. We are seekers of martyrdom."
Hamas is officially committed to Israel's destruction, not just a withdrawal from the occupied territories. The word means "zeal" in Arabic, and that is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement.
The group runs a network of low-cost clinics and schools that have broadened its ideological reach while helping to give its popularity a boost among Palestinians. Israeli security officials regard it as the most organized and disciplined of the militant groups.
Sheik Yassin helped found Hamas in 1987. He later spent eight years in an Israeli prison, before being freed in 1997 as a gesture to King Hussein of Jordan after a bungled assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in Amman, the capital.
The targeted killing followed an Israeli raid on Sunday into the southern Gaza Strip that left four Hamas militants and one Palestinian woman dead. Israel said it had been seeking to arrest one of the Hamas men who died in the operation.
Also on Sunday, Prime Minister Sharon gained qualified backing from his top right-wing rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, for Mr. Sharon's plan for a Gaza withdrawal. Mr. Netanyahu said he might back the plan if Mr. Sharon achieved an "appropriate return," including support for retraining some blocks of settlements in the West Bank, from the United States.
He also said Israel must remain free to act militarily in Gaza after any withdrawal.