Hamas leader dies in Israeli copter attack

JERUSALEM - The Israeli army killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a dawn helicopter strike yesterday as he and his bodyguards left a mosque near his home in Gaza City, Israeli authorities said.

Yassin, a quadriplegic, is the highest-profile target of Israel's campaign to assassinate members and leaders of militant groups responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that have claimed more than 1,000 lives in the past three years.

Palestinian doctors and witnesses confirmed the death of Yassin, his two bodyguards and possibly four others shortly after the 5:30 a.m. strike. Yassin escaped a previous attempt on his life by Israel in September.

Israel's deputy defense minister, Zeev Boim, who in January warned that Yassin was "marked for death," told Israeli Radio this morning that the Hamas leader "deserves to die. He is not immune. Not him, not his friends."

Members of Hamas, the most lethal of several Palestinian militant groups, blared Yassin's death over mosque loudspeakers and from vans that circled the crowded, volatile streets of Gaza City. Thousands of mourners gathered, many of them firing guns into the air.

The Hamas announcements said that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "has opened the gates of hell, and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head." Israelis, the speakers vowed, "will never enjoy rest. We will send death to every house, every city, every street in Israel."

'Cowardly act'

The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack. "This is a crazy and very dangerous act," a statement said. "It opens the door wide open to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas, and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act."

In Israel, police went on high alert to prepare for possible retaliatory strikes, and prison authorities took precautions against rioting by the estimated 1,000 Hamas prisoners.

Israeli leaders have long maintained that Yassin was far from a symbolic leader, but rather they said he ordered the most recent series of attacks, including the March 14 double suicide bombing at the port in Ashdod that killed 10 people.

After that attack, Israeli troops massed at the Gaza border and threatened an all-out attack. Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told Sharon's Cabinet yesterday that the army would "apply continuous pressure against this wave of terror."

Army commanders have said in recent days that they would increase military pressure in Gaza ahead of Sharon's plans to evacuate an estimated 7,000 Jewish settlers and soldiers, who live among 1.3 million Palestinians as part of his unilateral disengagement plan designed to separate the two sides. Palestinian militants have also increased their attacks.

There were few details from the chaotic scene in Gaza this morning immediately after the strike, which witnesses said targeted Yassin as his bodyguards pushed him in his wheelchair from the mosque to his white sport utility vehicle.

Thousands of people rushed to the scene, where some where seen holding up what remained of Yassin's bloodied wheelchair. They reported three explosions from missiles. "I looked to see where Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was," one witness told the Associated Press. "He was lying on the ground, and his chair was destroyed. People there darted left and right. Then another two missiles landed."

Militant gunmen were seen crying on the street. Yassin's body was taken by ambulance to Shifa Hospital, where witnesses said it arrived in pieces carried by medics in several nylon bags.

Hamas response

Israel's strike will most assuredly draw a response from Hamas, which in the past has lost some of its top commanders and bomb experts to Israeli assassinations. Before today, the highest Hamas leader killed by Israel was co-founder Ismael Abu Shanab. Israel has twice tried to kill the most radical of Hamas leaders, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and last year dropped a bomb on a building where Yassin and many of the group's top echelon had been meeting. All escaped with minor injuries.

The Israeli army has argued in the past that previous assassination campaigns have weakened Hamas and preoccupied its leaders with trying to stay alive. Hamas has many different figures, some more moderate than others, and Yassin's death leaves the group without a leader whose authority was unquestioned by nearly everyone. Rantisi, one of the group's most uncompromising figures, now emerges as its highest-profile leader and spokesman.

Yassin founded Hamas, an Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance Movement, in 1987, building a grass-roots organization that accumulates power by continuing to recruit members and supporters.

The group maintains a vast network of social programs, schools and charities that rival the Red Cross and United Nations in helping the Palestinians crowded into the Gaza Strip - benefits that have endeared Hamas to the masses and make it a political threat to the ruling Palestinian Authority run by Yasser Arafat.

Those who knew Yassin bestowed upon him acclaim that borders on worship.

"Sheik Yassin is like one of God's verses," said Ahmed Bahar, who runs the Islamic Society, one of the largest Hamas charities in Gaza, in an interview in January. "God has given him a beautiful capacity to lead, despite his suffering. He is a symbol to the Palestinian and Arab people, and we call to God for him to live longer, that he is the one to liberate Palestine."

Bahar, who met with Yassin nearly every day and considers him a close friend, described the sheik as "a symbol of jihad" - or holy war - and said that the failed politics of Arafat has resulted in "everyone believing that the solution is Islam."

Yassin was not charismatic like other Hamas leaders, whose fiery oratories turn speeches into pep rallies. Nearly blind in his right eye and hampered by chronic bronchitis and stomach ailments, Yassin was a less than an imposing figure - his presence diminished, his surroundings simple. He spoke in a high-pitched, scratchy voice.

Earlier attempt

The sheik survived an assassination attempt by Israel in September, barely escaping with a bruised shoulder when an F-16 fighter jet dropped a bomb on a building in Gaza in which Yassin and several of his close associates had been meeting. His close call became part of Gaza lore; stories abound that after dropping the first bomb, a mysterious, divine-like cloud blocked the pilot's vision and prevented another attack.

Yassin was born in the mid- or late 1930s in a village near what is now the seaside Israeli city of Ashkelon, a few miles north of the Gaza Strip. His family moved to the Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza after the 1948 War that followed the formation of the Israeli state.

It was there, as a teen-ager, that he became paralyzed, though how is a matter of debate. It is most widely believed that Yassin fell during a gymnastic exercise and that a friend fell on his neck. Later in life, Yassin, who has no formal religious training, taught the Quran and Arabic in elementary schools and at mosques.

After the war, Yassin and other activists transformed the brotherhood into what would become Hamas.

Israeli authorities arrested Yassin in 1983, only to release him in a prisoner exchange less than a year later. They arrested him again in 1989 for leading an insurgency during the first Palestinian uprising and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Again, Israel released him, in 1997, for two Israeli undercover agents after a failed assassination of the chairman of the Hamas political bureau in Jordan.