Symbol of Palestinian opposition languishes in prison, rejects release THE MIDDLE EAST

July 26, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

GAZA, Gaza Strip -- One night five years ago, Israeli troops stormed through a dusty alleyway here and burst into a bare concrete house. They herded the family into a corner and carted the paralyzed father in his wheelchair into a waiting van.

That man, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, is now one of the most important symbols of opposition to the peace process. The demand for his release from an Israeli jail is a chief sticking point of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Israel contends that the sheik, 58 and paralyzed below the neck, remains the figurative leader of the fundamentalist Muslim Hamas group. Hamas rejects any agreement with Israel and continues to make guerrilla attacks on Israeli soldiers.

But the Palestinian public has rallied around the cause of the sheik as representative of thousands of other Palestinian prisoners still held by Israel.

The bearded, pixieish Muslim preacher has created a dilemma for Palestinian and Israeli officials: Both fear that he could be a danger to the peace plan if released -- and a bigger danger if he is not.

"They don't want him to go out of prison alive," said Sheik Hassan Abdul Hamid Dib, an Islamic leader in Gaza. "They are afraid there would be a revolution like in Iran. But if he dies in prison, people would pour onto the streets. There would be clashes and attacks."

Sheik Yassin is serving a term of life plus 15 years for masterminding operations of Hamas that included killing several suspected Palestinian collaborators.

He has willingly acknowledged helping organize the group -- it is the duty of all Palestinians to resist Israeli occupation, he says. But he has persistently denied supporting any attacks on civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly offered this month to release the sheik if he agreed to stay out of the Gaza Strip for 10 years and to renounce violence.

"He will absolutely not agree to any conditions. Even if he dies inside prison, he will not agree," said Abdul Ghrani Ahmed Yassin, 20, sitting on his father's bed in the same simple house raided by Israelis on May 18, 1989.

The son, one of the sheik's 11 children, recalls the stream of people who used to come to his father asking him to settle disputes.

Sheik Yassin, preacher in a mosque nearby, developed a reputation for his fair -- if strict -- application of Islamic justice. He was respected for his mind and admired for overcoming paralysis.

His family, like many in Gaza, had been affected by the wars with Israel. Originally from a village near Ashqelon, now an Israeli city, his family fled to Gaza when Israel was created in 1948.

He was 14, playing a ball game on the beach in Gaza, when he injured his spinal cord. Despite the disability, he obtained his degree in Cairo, Egypt, and returned to Gaza to became a religious teacher.

He became a leader in Islamic circles and was arrested for the first time in 1985 for hiding weapons. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but released a year later in a large prisoner exchange.

When the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, broke out in 1987, he promptly helped form Hamas, a group formally sworn to destroy Israel.

Ironically, the Jewish state may have helped build this Pandora's box. Israel quietly encouraged formation of Islamic groups as opposition to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization, little realizing that it would someday make peace with the PLO and bleed from Hamas attacks.

Rearrested in 1989 and tried under tight security, Sheik Yassin remains in a prison in northern Israel, a daylong trip from the Gaza Strip for his family's bimonthly, half-hour visit.

Israel allows two other Islamic prisoners to tend to the sheik in his cell. His attorneys regularly press for better medical care and warn that their client's health is deteriorating. Israel contends that the claims are exaggerated.

But the warning carries weight because of fears of violence if he dies.

"He will turn into the tortured martyr of Palestinians," agreed Taleb al-Sanna, an Israeli Arab who is a member of the Israeli Knesset and who has met with Sheik Yassin regularly in prison. "The government of Israel will be held responsible. There will be all sorts of acts of revenge against Israelis."

But Israel is not anxious to free him, either. They fear that enthusiastic crowds greeting the sheik's release would strengthen Hamas.

"This guy is not just a spiritual leader," said Uri Dromi, spokesman for the Israeli government. "If not the head of Hamas, he is at least one of the main leaders and instigators. He has a lot of influence."

A surge in Hamas strength would come at the expense of the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat. But when Mr. Arafat made his historic return to Gaza this month, the first -- and loudest -- applause during his speech to the gathered crowd came after a pledge to win Sheik Yassin's release.

"Arafat would win approval from Hamas if he gets the release of Sheik Yassin," said Omar Ahmed al-Boursh, one of several attorneys for the Islamic leader. Sheik Yassin "is considered a symbol, a fighter, and because of that Arafat has to try to release him."

Sheik Yassin, for his part, seems aware of the squeeze his imprisonment puts on both the Israelis and his rival, Mr. Arafat. He seems willing to prolong the pain for his antagonists.

"We are very happy here. We memorize the Koran and worship God," he said in an interview smuggled from prison and published last year in an Arabic weekly. "If it weren't for the fact that prison is so despicable and that it keeps one from his family, I would say that I want to remain in prison forever. I am more comfortable here than I was outside."

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