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Backgrounder over the Years, Sheik Yassin Grew in Status, Violence and Radicalism

March 23, 2004
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As a journalist, I met Sheik Ahmed Yassin twice during my visits to the Gaza Strip.

The first time was when I attended a military court hearing in 1984, when Yassin was sentenced to 13 years in prison for anti-Israel activities.

Only a year later Yassin was released in a prisoner-exchange deal, and a few years after that I visited him at his home in Gaza.

On both occasions I was left with the impression that this seemingly vulnerable quadriplegic was as strong as a rock, outwardly unmoved by the course of events.

He set a target — the establishment of a Muslim state in all of historic Palestine — and was determined to achieve it at any cost. When he appeared in court, he wore an indifferent smile on his face, clearly despising his captors.

When I visited his home in the late 1980s, Yassin already was a respected local leader, but he did not yet have the stature he achieved after his release from an Israeli jail in 1997, where he had been sent for inciting terrorism.

During the visit, Yassin’s assistants showed me into a modest room. Though he knew I was Israeli, Yassin treated me with respect. I was seated on the floor opposite the crippled sheik, who sat on a mattress supported by pillows, wearing that indifferent smile on his face.

He answered my questions politely and in an orderly fashion. No question threw him off balance.

At the time — before the Oslo Accords — Yassin did not speak about eliminating the Jewish state, a call he later would adopt with great frequency. Instead, he spoke of the need for an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from all “occupied territories.”

Later, however, Yassin served as the inspiration for young Palestinians to sacrifice their lives in the killing of Jews. He promised that suicide bombers who were willing to die for the Palestinian cause and in service of a victory over the Zionists would achieve martyrdom.

A senior Israeli intelligence officer said Monday that Yassin’s death would create a vacuum in the Hamas leadership that would be difficult to fill. Abdel Aziz Rantissi — another target on Israel’s hit list — was expected to succeed Yassin.

The contrast between Yassin’s poor physical shape and his enormous political and spiritual power was astonishing.

Yassin was a classic example of an Islamic leader who derives his political power partly due to his handicap — like Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind sheik from Egypt now in prison in the United States for conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Yassin was a frail quadriplegic who could barely see. His voice was thin and quavering. But to the ears of millions of Muslim supporters throughout the Middle East, it was thunder.

Born in 1938 in the village of Joura, near present-day Ashkelon, Yassin had a childhood accident during a soccer game that left him a quadriplegic.

During Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, Yassin was among tens of thousands of Arab refugees who fled from the Ashkelon area to the Gaza Strip. The family settled in a refugee camp. Limited in his physical movement, Yassin devoted himself to political activities.

He joined the Muslim Brotherhood while studying at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. The movement’s message was that the rule of Islam had to be imposed wherever possible, whether in Egypt, Israel or other parts of the world.

Islamic rule was one of the inspirations for the Palestinian intifadas started in 1987 and 2000, and it serves as the ideological backbone of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida terrorist network.

After returning to Gaza, Yassin became actively involved in politics.

In 1979, he founded the Islamic Organization, a body Israeli military authorities initially hoped would reduce the political influence of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. At the time, the Islamic Organization dealt mostly with welfare.

But the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood fueled Yassin’s belief that the Israelis occupied an Islamic land whose ownership was not negotiable, and the sheik gradually shifted from social and religious activity to clandestine activities against Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza.

In the mid-1980s, a military court in Gaza convicted him for illegal possession of arms, the establishment of a military organization and calling for the annihilation of Israel. He was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 1984. But a year later he was released in a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and the terrorist organization of Ahmed Jibril.

Yassin made his big plunge into national politics in 1987.

With the start of the first Palestinian intifada, Yassin transformed his Islamic Organization into a new body called Hamas. An acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas means zeal in Arabic. In Hebrew, it means evil.

Hamas succeeded not only because it raised the banner of Islam in the battle against Israel, but also because it built an effective social welfare system of schools, clinics and hospitals that provide free services to Palestinian families.

The organization set up charitable funds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — and in Israel proper — and raised millions of dollars from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

In 1989, Yassin again was arrested and sentenced to life in prison for issuing a religious order to kill Palestinians who allegedly had collaborated with the Israeli army. He became one of the harshest critics of the Oslo Accords, signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993.

“The so-called peace path is not peace and it is not a substitute for jihad and resistance,” he said repeatedly, insisting that “Palestine” should be “consecrated for future Muslim generations until judgment day” and that no Arab leader had the right to give up any part of its territory.

Yassin eventually was released from jail in 1997 in a deal with Jordan for two Israeli agents involved in a botched assassination attempt on a Hamas leader in the Jordanian capital.

Hamas gradually undermined the authority of the Palestinian Authority. Every now and then, police forces under the command of P.A. President Yasser Arafat put on a show of force against Hamas. Yassin was put under house arrest several times, but the Palestinian Authority always was forced to lift it.

As recently as last week, P.A. policemen took to the streets to scare Islamic gunmen off the streets. However, the armed militia of Arafat’s own Fatah organization, the Al-Aksa Brigade, increasingly cooperates with Hamas, imitating its suicide bombing attacks and conducting joint attacks on Israelis.

Last year, Yassin gave his blessing to the “hudna” reached among Palestinian terrorist factions to temporarily curtail their attacks against Israel. However, the cease-fire collapsed after less then three months, when Palestinians resumed attacks and Israel resumed its military retaliations.

The Israeli army attempted to kill Yassin on Sept. 6, 2003, while he was at the house of a Hamas colleague in Gaza. He was only lightly wounded, however, and promised revenge.

Last January, there was a flicker of hope that Hamas might adopt a more moderate course. Yassin suddenly announced that his movement was ready to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an interim measure.

“We are leaving the rest of the occupied territories for history,” Yassin said in an interview with the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi.

However, hopes faded Jan. 15 when Rim a-Rishi, 22, a mother of two, pulled the trigger of her explosive vest during a security check at the Erez crossing from the Gaza Strip into Israel, killing four Israelis.

It turned out that the attack had taken place with Yassin’s blessing — the first official Hamas endorsement of a female suicide bomber.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 30, Yassin said Hamas was trying to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Hamas also was behind last week’s double suicide bombing at Ashdod’s port, which killed 10. Some Israeli observers said the bombing actually was an attempt to set off a chemical explosion at the port with the potential for killing thousands.

Indeed, Hamas staged terrorist attacks whenever possible. It’s not clear whether Yassin was actively involved in planning the attacks, but he openly gave his blessing for the strategy of terrorism.

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