Death of Sheik Raises Question of Hamas Fate

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 23-Mar-04 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: The New York Times

JERUSALEM, March 22 — In killing the Hamas spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Israel is wagering that it has so weakened his Palestinian faction that it cannot retaliate with the wave of revenge attacks it has threatened.

After nearly two years of systematic Israeli raids against Hamas and other violent Palestinian groups, suicide bombings fell to 20 last year, down from 54 a year earlier. Over all, Israeli deaths fell by half in 2003 compared with 2002.

But the deadly helicopter strike on Monday outside a Gaza City mosque generated such rage among Palestinians that many here fear that Israel could face a surge of retaliatory strikes.

The question, then, is which will prove more important, the leader who was slain or the following he inspired.

"Hamas has the same overall capability to deliver attacks that it had yesterday," said Boaz Ganor, head of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel. "And now it has tremendous motivation."

But in the longer term, he said, the group will be hurt by the absence of Sheik Yassin. "The person that set their strategic policy, the person that incited them and was leading the way, is gone and is perhaps irreplaceable," he said. "I don't see any figure in Hamas that will have Sheik Yassin's level of influence."

Sheik Yassin was absolutist in his views.

"I believe completely that Israel will vanish, and that we Palestinians will recover the lands and homes that were stolen from us in 1948," he said in an interview with The New York Times shortly before the current Palestinian uprising began in September 2000.

Sheik Yassin, who spoke in a high-pitched rasp that was barely audible, became a quadriplegic at age 12. Aside from daily wheelchair trips to the neighborhood mosque, he ventured out infrequently from his modest Gaza City home.

For all his frailties, he made himself one of the most influential figures in the Middle East conflict. He rose to prominence in the 1980's as the founder of Hamas, the Islamic movement that has carried out the most — and the deadliest — suicide bombings against Israel.

Sheik Yassin was always identified as Hamas's spiritual leader, and the group sought to distinguish between its "political" and "military" wings. He and other political figures said the responsibility for attacks was left in the hands of the military wing. Israel dismisses the claimed division as fiction, saying he was "the authorizing and initiating authority for all Hamas terrorist attacks."

To Israelis, Sheik Yassin was an archterrorist whose group not only rejected Israel's right to exist, but was also bent on its destruction. While complicated peace plans came and went over the last decade, he and his Hamas followers lived and died by a simple formula: reject negotiations and attack Israel as part of a long-term strategy to drive out the Jews and establish an Islamic state.

Hamas's large following and its ability to carry out bombings consistently gave it the ability to disrupt, if not derail, the potential compromises it opposed.

Most Israelis supported the decision to kill Sheik Yassin.

The Israeli interior minister, Avraham Poraz, said he was one of two dissenting voices when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's cabinet approved the operation.

"I think the damage is greater than the usefulness," Mr. Poraz told Israel radio. "The blow to him will not eliminate Hamas." According to Israeli news reports, the chief of the Shin Bet security service, Avi Dichter, also opposed the strike.

Some who opposed the move recalled that Israel made a similar wager in 1996 and fared badly. In that instance, Israel killed Hamas's chief bomb maker, Yahya Ayyash, with an exploding cellphone.

Hamas responded with bombings that killed dozens of Israelis in the next two months and contributed to the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. It could do so again, some terrorism experts warn.

While Sheik Yassin's movements were limited, he granted interviews and occasionally appeared at Hamas rallies. The father of 11 children, he maintained a simple life style and was viewed as being in touch with the poor, who make up the core constituency of Hamas.

He was instantly recognizable in his white robe and headdress, with a long beard. He rarely spoke at length, and his whisper could be difficult to hear even in a small, quiet room. He suffered frequent illnesses, and had poor eyesight and hearing that deteriorated during years in Israeli prisons, he said.

Until last year, Israel refrained from attacking the group's top political figures, though they appeared in public and took few precautions against a possible Israeli strike.

That changed last summer, when Israel carried out four separate airstrikes against the four most prominent Hamas leaders in Gaza. One was killed, and three were wounded. Sheik Yassin suffered only slight wounds when Israel bombed a house he was visiting on Sept. 6.

Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and a former cabinet minister who frequently dealt with Hamas, said he viewed Sheik Yassin and other political figures in Hamas as less extreme than those in the group's military wing.

"If Israel continues with this assassination policy against political leaders, it will pave the way for the younger and more militant leaders," Mr. Amr said.

But Mr. Ganor, the Israeli analyst, disagreed.

"Viewing Yassin as the sane, moderate voice of Hamas is ridiculous," he said. "He was an ultraradical who would not accept the right of Israel to exist under any circumstances."

Ahmed Yassin was born in the 1930's in an Arab fishing village near what is now the southern Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon. At the time of his death, he was believed to be 67, though information on his birth date is sketchy and conflicting.

His family became refugees in the 1948 Middle East war that erupted at Israel's founding. The Yassin family settled in Gaza, and at age 12, a sports accident cost Sheik Yassin the use of his arms and legs.

After high school, he studied in Egypt and then made his name as a teacher and a preacher in Gaza's mosques. He eventually attracted the attention of the Israelis, who arrested him in 1984 on weapons charges and released him a year later as part of a prisoner deal.

At the beginning of the first Palestinian uprising in 1987, Sheik Yassin co-founded Hamas. Two years later, he was convicted of orchestrating the killing of an Israeli soldier, and was sentenced to life in prison. But Israel freed him in 1997 to win the release of two Israeli agents captured in Jordan after a failed effort to kill a Hamas leader there.