JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - The founder of Hamas is "marked for death" because of his support for suicide bombers, Israel's deputy defense minister said in a threat that triggered a wave of defiance yesterday among Palestinian militants.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 69, a quadriplegic who has survived past assassination attempts, scoffed at the warnings, saying he doesn't fear death.
"We will not bow to pressure, and resistance will continue until the occupation is destroyed," Yassin said as an assistant pushed his wheelchair through a crowd of cheering men and into a Gaza City mosque.
Israel has assassinated a number of Hamas commanders and other Palestinians accused of being behind suicide attacks in an attempt to disrupt the command structure of militant organizations.
However, such attacks usually come in the form of airstrikes and have sometimes killed dozens of bystanders.
Israel carried out a series of the killings last summer, then ordered a lull as Palestinian militant groups reduced their activities while weighing the possibility of a cease-fire.
On Wednesday, in the wake of a Hamas suicide bombing that killed four Israelis at an Israel-Gaza border crossing, Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Boim announced that the killings would resume.
Going further, Boim named Yassin as a target Thursday.
"Sheik Yassin is marked for death, and he should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night. And we will find him in the tunnels, and we will eliminate him," Boim told Army Radio.
He later softened his comments, saying no specific decision to target Yassin was made at a security meeting after Wednesday's suicide bombing. Such a decision would need the approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli officials said.
Yassin has said that suicide attacks are allowed under Islamic law and that it is the duty of good Muslims to fight Israeli occupation. He has repeatedly said that he is not involved in the planning and training for such attacks, which have killed more than 450 Israelis in the past three years.
Previous public comments by Israeli politicians that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat should be "removed" from office have provoked similar outrage by Palestinians as seen across the West Bank and Gaza yesterday.
Yassin is a respected spiritual leader, even among Palestinians who do not agree with Hamas and its violent operations.
Those who do not support Yassin or his organization's Islamic leanings questioned the wisdom behind an Israeli policy to kill him, saying it would only bolster those who support violence over negotiation.
"It doesn't take much brains to know that assassinating the political leadership of Hamas will have serious implications locally and regionally," said Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi.