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Israel Defends Killing of Sheik As the Public Braces for Revenge

Israeli leaders are making no apologies for killing Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, likening him to Osama bin Laden.

“The State of Israel hit the first and foremost leader of Palestinian terrorist murderers,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told reporters after Israeli helicopter gunships killed Yassin in a predawn airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Monday. “I want to make it clear that the war on terrorism is not over and will continue daily everywhere.”

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called Yassin Israel’s bin Laden.

Yassin, a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound cleric who was sworn to Israel’s destruction, was killed around 5 a.m. Monday by three missiles fired from helicopter gunships as he was taken home from morning prayers in Gaza City.

Two bodyguards and five other Palestinians were killed in the strike and 17 people were reported wounded, including two of Yassin’s sons.

Within hours, tens of thousands of mourners jammed Gaza City streets for the funeral procession. Twenty-one Palestinian Authority police officers formed an honor guard as the coffin holding Yassin’s mangled body was carried out of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Ha’aretz reported.

“Sharon has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head,” the Hamas leadership said in a statement announcing the death of Yassin, the movement’s spiritual leader.

The Israel Defense Forces said Yassin had been directly responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks. Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks during the last three and a half years.

Yassin founded Hamas in 1987, soon after the start of the first Palestinian intifada. He emerged from the ranks of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood to found the group.

In 1989, Yassin was jailed by Israel and sentenced to a life term for inciting Palestinians to attack Israelis as Hamas’ founder.

But Israel released Yassin in 1997 as a goodwill gesture to Jordan’s late King Hussein after a bungled Israeli attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

An Israeli assassination attempt on the sheik last September resulted in minor injuries to Yassin.

Most recently, Hamas claimed joint responsibility for a double bombing that killed 10 Israelis in the strategic Israeli port of Ashdod a week ago. The group also claimed responsibility for an attack over the weekend that toppled an Israeli tank, leaving four soldiers injured.

Israel had threatened a harsh response to the Ashdod attack. It also is seeking to incapacitate Hamas ahead of a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Islamic terrorist group’s power base is in Gaza’s teeming refugee camps — and Israelis, Palestinians and international observers alike have expressed concern about a rise in Hamas’ power there after an Israeli military pullout.

According to security sources, Yassin was targeted as part of Israel’s plans for disengagement from the Palestinians, in the hope of cowing Hamas and offsetting the prestige it would gain from any Israeli pullback.

Sharon told a meeting of his Likud Party’s parliamentary caucus that the Jewish people had a “natural right” to pursue those seeking to destroy it.

Yassin’s ideology “was killing and murdering Jews, wherever they were, and the destruction of the State of Israel,” Sharon said. “The war against terror has not ended and will continue day after day, everywhere.”

The rest of the Israeli political establishment was divided on the assassination of Yassin. The centrist Shinui and left-wing parties and groups were against it, and right-wing Knesset members and organizations supported it, Israeli media reported.

Around the globe, much of the international community condemned the attack.

The European Union said, “Not only are extrajudicial killings contrary to international law, they undermine the concept of the rule of law, which is a key element in the fight against terrorism.”

In the United States, however, President Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, refrained from criticizing Yassin’s killing.

“Let’s remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that Sheik Yassin has himself, personally, we believe, been involved in terrorist planning,” Rice said during an interview Monday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Rice also said the United States had no advance knowledge of the attack.

Later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan took a similar stand, saying “Israel has the right to defend herself” and that “Sheik Yassin was personally involved in terrorism.”

But the State Department took a decidedly different tone. “We find it deeply troubling,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of Israel’s strike. “We find the consequences of this action, in terms of raising tension and making it harder to pursue peace efforts — those are things of concern to us.”

In an effort to strengthen Israel’s public relations, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is planning to make available to members of the foreign media Israeli victims of Hamas terror attacks and their relatives, Ha’aretz reported.

An Israeli Cabinet minister said Israel now needs to get rid of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“The Palestinian Authority is slow to understand that Israel will keep hitting all those who carry out terrorist attacks and are responsible for harming innocents,” Health Minister Danny Naveh said.

“The next stage needs to be getting rid of Arafat and his gang,” he said, and then Israel should “extend its hand to a moderate leadership that will rise up instead and reach a negotiated peace.”

Arafat declared three days of mourning in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Yassin and opened a mourning tent outside his Ramallah compound.

Egypt, meanwhile, said it was pulling out of planned celebrations of the Camp David peace accords with Israel in protest over the Yassin assassination. Friday, March 26, marks 25 years since Egypt became the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel. Before Monday’s airstrike, Egypt had agreed to take part in celebrations at the Knesset and Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

The government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has assiduously tried to keep ties with Israel to the minimum necessary, particularly in the last three and a half years of Palestinian intifada.

Mubarak scoffed when asked how the assassination of Yassin would affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “What peace? The world’s on fire,” he said.

Yassin’s killing reverberated almost immediately among Palestinians.

Aside from angry protests, an axe-wielding Palestinian wounded three Israelis in one apparent revenge attack Monday. Police arrested the man after he got out of a car in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, and attacked a group of people outside an army base. Two men and a woman were lightly wounded before the assailant was overpowered.

In the Palestinian-populated areas, two Palestinians were killed in confrontations with Israeli forces. Witnesses said one man was shot dead by Israeli troops in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis, and another was killed outside Nablus, in the West Bank, as Palestinians took to the streets to vent their rage at Yassin’s killing.

Clashes were reported throughout the Palestinian-populated territories and in eastern Jerusalem. Israeli security forces, already wary of suicide bombings by Hamas, went on high alert, closing off the West Bank and Gaza.

An Israeli Arab organization designated Tuesday as a day of mourning and called for protests against “terrorist acts perpetrated by the Israeli government.”

In the streets of Israel, people were tense.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” said Merav Donin, 30. “Although I am not for killing people, Yassin was a murderer and it had to be done,” said Donin, a clerk at a spiritual therapy store.

Echoing the view expressed by several political observers, Donin said, “In the short term we are going to be hit back, but it won’t be any worse than what we are already going through today.”

Eyal Tabib, a philosophy student, said he was concerned that someone else would just come along and replace Yassin.

“It concerns me because many people, many families are about to suffer now,” he said.

Roni Avraham, a merchant at the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem, said the market was quiet.

“Today there is no one at the souk,” he told Army Radio. “Those who do come buy what they need and quickly leave. There is tension in the air and people feel like something is about to happen.”

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