- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

TEL AVIV — Hundreds of thousands of enraged Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza City yesterday, calling on militant groups to exact painful revenge on Israel for the assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin early yesterday.

The killing of the most prominent Palestinian leader since the start of the 3-year-old uprising inspired one of the largest funeral processions ever seen in the Gaza Strip and triggered a wave of international condemnation.

Only the United States was muted in its criticism, expressing concern about the killing but reiterating Israel’s right to defend itself.

Palestinian militants fired rockets at Israeli towns and Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, prompting Israel to send tanks into the territory last night. Palestinian security officials said the tanks were moving toward the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, but no exchanges of fire were reported.

Earlier yesterday, gunmen in black ski masks marched through Gaza City under giant green and white Hamas banners, while civilians demanded retaliatory strikes against Israeli politicians.

“Muhammad’s army will return,” the crowd cried as the bodies of Sheik Yassin and seven other Palestinians were carried through the streets in open wooden caskets.

All eight were killed by rockets fired by Israeli helicopters as they left a mosque before dawn. Israeli radio reported that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally directed the attack.

“Now we are saying to the murderers and terrorists, the war is opened,” said Abdel Azziz Rantisi, part of Hamas’ senior leadership in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s army sealed off the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and security forces in cities were put on high alert for suicide attackers.

Mr. Sharon and his Cabinet ministers justified the assassination of the wheelchair-bound sheik by painting him as an archterrorist who oversaw Hamas’ suicide-bombing campaign against Israeli citizens.

“This was a hit against a terrorist leader. It is part of the obligation and right of the state of Israel to protect its citizens,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said.

“Ahmed Yassin is a terrorist leader who sent terrorist and suicide bombers by the hundreds to kill civilians. He was the Palestinian [Osama] bin Laden, whose hands were stained with the blood of Israeli children.”

Sheik Yassin survived a previous Israeli assassination attempt in September, escaping with minor injuries from a missile strike on a Gaza Strip building, where he was meeting with the Hamas leadership. Israel accuses Hamas of responsibility in the killing of 377 persons since September 2000.

An Islamist Web site published a statement yesterday, purporting to come from an al Qaeda-linked group, vowing revenge on the United States and its allies over the assassination, Reuters news agency reported.

“We tell Palestinians that Sheik Yassin’s blood was not spilt in vain and call on all legions of Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades to avenge him by attacking the tyrant of the age, America, and its allies,” said the statement by Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades carried by the Al Ansar forum Web site.

The group had claimed responsibility for the March 11 train bombings in Spain that killed more than 200 people. There was no means of verifying the statement.

Israeli political analysts saw yesterday’s strike as part of a new offensive designed to show that a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip being planned by the Sharon government is not a sign of weakness.

The Washington Times last week reported that Mr. Sharon had approved attacks on leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, and quoted a senior Israeli official saying, “The hunting season has begun.”

But some Israelis predicted that the assassination would strengthen support for Hamas at the expense of the disintegrating Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s Channel Two television said the head of the Shin Bet security agency had cautioned that the damage from the assassination would outweigh the benefit.

“I think we’ve opened up a problematic circle,” Interior Minister Avraham Poraz said. “Their motivation will rise. We’ve turned [Sheik Yassin] into a hero that generations of Palestinian youths will learn from.”

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “We are deeply troubled by this morning’s actions in Gaza” but refused to condemn the killing.

Other U.S. officials echoed Israeli charges that Sheik Yassin had taken part in Hamas’ campaign of violence and reiterated Israel’s right to self-defense.

In the rest of the world, the assassination brought a chorus of condemnation from leaders who warned about an escalation of Middle East violence.

“All of us can defend Israel’s right to defend itself,” said British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. “But it is not entitled to go in for this type of unlawful killing.”

The outrage in Gaza was echoed around the Middle East. In cities across the West Bank, thousands of Palestinians marched in solidarity with Hamas.

In Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat has been holed up in a heavily damaged headquarters for two years, there was concern that the Palestinian leader might be Israel’s next target. A three-day period of mourning was declared by the authority.

Handicapped from his youth and a refugee from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Sheik Yassin started a Gaza Islamic charity organization in the 1970s that later became the foundation of Hamas. Sheik Yassin, who was in his 60s when killed, spent about 10 years in Israeli jails and was last freed in 1997 in a swap with Jordan for captured Israeli spies.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah pledged retaliation as guerillas from his Iranian-backed organization fired at Israeli military positions along the Lebanon border.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the strike an act of “barbarism” and predicted that the waves created by the assassination would reverberate throughout the region.

Palestinian observers suggested the short-term popularity boost for Hamas from the assassination could pave the way for increased collaboration between the Islamist group and the Palestinian Authority.

“There is a lot of talk these days about unity and more cooperation, and avoiding any infighting,” said Said Zeedani, a political analyst.

“Some political figures have been pushing for some sort of unified command or leadership, not to replace this government but to function alongside this government.”

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