Friday, January 16, 2004

From combined dispatches

JERUSALEM — Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin is “marked for death” following a suicide bombing that killed four Israeli security personnel in Gaza, Israel’s deputy defense chief said yesterday.

The wheelchair-bound Muslim cleric attended Friday prayers at a mosque near his Gaza City home and told reporters he would embrace “martyrdom.”

It was not clear whether the Jewish state had made a final decision to kill the Hamas spiritual leader. Israel made a botched attempt on Sheik Yassin’s life in September.

Thousands of Palestinians rallied last night in support of Sheik Yassin in Gaza City and the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.

Among the protesters were dozens of masked Hamas members who waved green flags as spokesmen announced through loudspeakers the militant group would fight on even if Israel killed its leaders.

“Israel will pay a heavy price for any attempt to harm the sheik and the [Hamas] political leadership,” a statement released by the militant group’s armed wing said.

Hamas claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s bombing by a Palestinian mother of two on the Gaza-Israel border. Three soldiers and a security officer were killed in the incident that further undermined chances of reviving a U.S.-backed peace plan.

“He is marked for death and he had better dig deep underground, where he won’t be able to tell the difference between day and night,” Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said of Sheik Yassin. “We will find him in his tunnels and liquidate him,” he told Army Radio.

Later, Mr. Boim softened his comments, saying he spoke generally and that no specific decision was made to kill Sheik Yassin at a Defense Ministry meeting Wednesday.

Killing the Hamas founder would require approval by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli security officials said. Asked about the possibility of targeting Sheik Yassin, Mr. Sharon’s senior adviser, Raanan Gissin, told the Associated Press, “We never comment on specific cases.”

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters, “Escalating the Israeli policy of assassinations will … lead to more escalation and a widening of the cycle of violence, bloodshed and chaos.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Israel had a right to defend itself but also should consider the consequences of its actions. He also criticized Hamas and other groups for violent acts.

But, surrounded by bodyguards outside the Gaza mosque, Sheik Yassin said: “Resistance must continue, until the removal of the occupation.”

Asked if he feared for his life, he replied: “They have tried to kill Sheik Ahmed Yassin before. … I would like to say to them: We do not fear death threats. We are seekers of martyrdom.”

Sheik Yassin, who founded Hamas in 1987, has spent several years in Israeli prisons. In September, an Israeli warplane dropped a 550-pound bomb on a building where he and other Hamas leaders were meeting, but Sheik Yassin escaped with just a small wound to his hand.

Also yesterday, Israeli TV reported that Mr. Sharon is considering changing the route of a separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank to cut costs and reduce Palestinian suffering. Sharon aides are to present proposed changes to U.S. officials next week, the reports said.

The world court in The Hague is to hear arguments next month on the legality of the barrier. Israel says it needs the barrier to keep out Palestinian attackers. The Palestinians say the divider, which in places digs deep into the West Bank and disrupts the lives of thousands of Palestinians, amounts to a land grab.

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