Yassin — Hamas spiritual leader and Israel’s foe
GAZA CITY: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed on Monday in an Israeli air raid in Gaza, was the enigmatic founder and spiritual leader of the Palestinian radical movement Hamas, which has claimed hundreds of deadly anti-Israeli attacks.
The 67-year-old sheikh, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, was killed in the early hours as he left a mosque after dawn prayers in the Sabra quarter of the city. Israel had made little secret of its desire to eliminate Yassin. He was slightly injured in an air strike in Gaza last September but security chiefs decided only last Tuesday to have another go.
“We will intensify our operations against Hamas and its leadership,” a senior official told AFP after a meeting of the powerful security cabinet convened after Hamas claimed joint responsibility for a twin suicide attack in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod that left 10 dead as well as the bombers.
But in an interview with a Hamas website, a defiant Yassin said that Israel would never be able to deal a death blow to his movement. “Israel has tried to destroy Hamas more than once and each time, the movement has come out stronger,” he said.
And in mid-January, he shrugged off threats from Israel. “Death threats do not frighten us, because we are in search of martyrdom,” he said. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of 12 when he lost the use of his legs in an accident while playing football in Shati refugee camp, Yassin’s emblematic image is ubiquitous throughout the Gaza Strip, and adorns the prison cells of many hard-line militants held by Israel.
He frequently said Hamas would only stop its deadly suicide attacks if the Israeli army stopped “killing Palestinian women, children and innocent civilians”. The diminutive and bearded Yassin, always seen wearing the traditional white skullcap, founded the radical movement at the start of the first Palestinian uprising (1987-1993).
At the time, he was the Gaza-based leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organisation founded in Egypt in the 1920s.
Speaking in a distinctive high-pitched voice, Yassin needed help in all daily activities and suffered from muscular deterioration, chronic breathing problems and hearing loss.
Father to 11 children, the elderly sheikh was one of the numerous Palestinian families expelled from their homes in what is today Israel during the first Israeli-Arab war in 1948.
He was born in 1936 in Majdel near the coastal town of Ashkelon, but fled to Gaza with his family after the village was destroyed in 1948. Despite his paralysis, after completing secondary school Yassin left for Cairo, where he spent a year studying at Ein Shams University.
A lack of money forced him to cut short his studies and return home, but his year in Cairo was to prove decisive since it was there that he became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Back in Gaza, Yassin founded his own movement, Mujama al-Islami, in the 1970s and began recruiting young activists.
At the time, Israel tacitly encouraged the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Gaza as a counterweight to the secular militancy of Yasser Arafat’s revolutionary Fatah movement.
Caught up in the fervour of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Yassin set up a more radical movement — Majd el-Mujahedin, Arabic for the Glory of Muslim Combatants.
He was arrested a first time in 1984 for illegal possession of weapons and explosives, but released a year later after which he set to work creating Hamas, an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Since its inception on December 14, 1987, Hamas, which completely rejects the right of Israel to exist, has carried out the majority of attacks against Israeli targets, and become the Jewish state’s most formidable enemy.
Arrested again in 1989, Yassin listened impassively as an Israeli court sentenced him to life in prison. He was released and deported to Jordan in 1997 in a deal brokered by the late Jordanian monarch, King Hussein. Shortly afterwards, Israel allowed the ailing cleric to return to Gaza. Sheikh Yassin had an up-and-down relationship with Arafat’s Palestinian Authority which has placed him under house arrest several times. —AFP