Palestinians mourn Yassin, vow revenge against Israelis

Militant factions set aside differences as 200,000 jam Gaza for funeral march

Palestinians mourn Yassin, vow revenge against Israel

March 23, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - As Israel's prime minister congratulated the military for assassinating Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas, more than 200,000 Palestinians jammed the streets for his funeral march and vowed revenge.

Palestinians belonging to rival political factions put aside their differences to march side by side, while masked gunmen rattled off machine-gun salutes into the air to honor a man they revered as a hero and whom Israel regarded as a terrorist.

It was the largest public gathering in memory in this crowded, volatile city, where burying those killed fighting Israel has become a ritualistic pageant extolling the virtues of martyrdom, and where grief and anger become interchangeable.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has proposed withdrawing Jewish settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip, thanked his military for killing Yassin, whom he described as an "arch-terrorist" committed to "killing and murdering Jews, wherever they were."

Speaking to members of his Likud Party, Sharon declared that "it is the natural right of the Jewish people, like that of all nations in the world that love life, to hunt down those who rise to destroy it."

Hamas, the most lethal of the Palestinian militant groups, has carried out more than 50 suicide attacks in the past three years, taking the lives of hundreds of Israelis.

Some Israeli officials questioned the wisdom of killing Yassin, warning that reprisals by Hamas could outweigh any immediate benefits. Israeli television reported that Israel's domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, had opposed the assassination, arguing that it would "do more harm than good."

Palestinians marched in the West Bank and Gaza on what was declared the first of three days of official mourning. Five Palestinians, including two teen-agers, were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers.

In Ramallah, in the West Bank, demonstrators converged on the ruined compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who ordered flags flown at half-staff and praised Yassin, who competed with him for power and popularity.

"May you join the martyrs and the prophets," Arafat said. "To heaven, you martyr."

Yassin, who used a wheelchair, was killed yesterday when the Israeli army targeted him with missiles as he was leaving dawn prayers. Seven others were killed in the helicopter attack, including two of Yassin's bodyguards. By midmorning, the air was filled with acrid smoke from tires set alight by protesters.

"Yassin was not just Hamas," said Yousef Said, a 47-year-old Gazan standing outside Martyr's Cemetery, where Yassin was buried. "He was an international Islamic symbol who was honored to die for us."

Britain, the European Union and the United Nations condemned the assassination, saying it would inflame the conflict locally and across the Arab world. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said "it was very unlikely to achieve its objectives."

Egyptian officials, who have sought to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, canceled plans for Egyptian legislators to visit Israel today to mark the 25th anniversary of the peace accord between the two countries.

The Israeli army has assassinated dozens of militants in the past 3 1/2 years of fighting, arguing in most cases that the killings were the only way to stop imminent attacks. Israeli commanders have gradually expanded their target list to include militant leaders, who they argue set the agenda and orchestrate suicide bombings. Israeli leaders publicly identified Yassin in January as "marked for death."

Yossi Kuperwasser, head of the Israeli military's intelligence research department, told a parliamentary committee yesterday that killing Yassin, "in the short run, will increase feelings of revenge and will increase the motivation for attacks."

But he argued that Yassin's removal "creates a void in the Palestinian leadership that might harm the organization's activities. None of the other leaders in Hamas had his influence."

Other Israeli officials have argued that a stepped-up assassination campaign in January drove Hamas leaders underground and kept them too busy hiding to plan attacks.

Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the centrist Shinui Party told Israel Radio that he was among a handful of Cabinet officials who cast his ballot during a secret vote last week against targeting Yassin.

"I fear we have opened up a cycle here and that many will pay for it with their lives," Poraz said. "Yassin will become some sort of martyr, a national hero for the Palestinians, and I'm very sorry to say, this won't prevent Hamas from continuing its activities."

Israeli police, on high alert, set up roadblocks yesterday and blanketed city centers with armed officers and bomb-sniffing dogs. Authorities shut down access to and from the West Bank and Gaza, barring Palestinians from leaving cities or entering Israel to work. The defense minister recommended that Israeli embassies abroad bolster security.

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