When Israel jailed Sheik Ahmed Ismael Yassin six years ago, convicting him in a military court of ordering the killing of its soldiers and Palestinian collaborators, the expectation was that the Islamic Resistance Movement he had founded would collapse and the rebellion here against the Israeli occupation would end.
"Without Sheik Yassin, we were expected simply to die away, but the very opposite happened," said Mahmoud Zahhar, the spokesman for Hamas, as the movement is known. "We are far stronger now, support for Hamas has spread throughout Gaza and onto the West Bank, and Sheik Yassin is even more of an inspiration to our people than before."
Paralyzed from the neck down, blind in one eye and increasingly deaf, the imprisoned 59-year-old Islamic leader has indeed become the symbol for many Palestinians of their resistance to Israel and, over the last year and a half, of opposition to the agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on self-government.
Although opinion surveys among Palestinians over the last year show little more than 20% support for Hamas, even in the Gaza Strip, compared to more than twice that for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, Hamas has emerged as the PLO's chief rival for the leadership of the Palestinian people and even their identity as a nation.
"Gaza is a place of despair, and it has been so for a very long time," said Ibrahim Yazouri, a longtime colleague of Yassin and another of the founders of Hamas. "But in Islam people find hope, something to live by, to fight for and, when necessary, to die for. . . . That's our foundation."
To Israelis, however, Hamas poses the gravest threat to their hopes for peace with the Palestinians.
Hamas' Iziddin al-Qassam militia units have carried out most of the devastating terrorist attacks inside Israel over the last year, and Hamas' daily challenges to the PLO undercut its authority both in Gaza and the West Bank.
As the principal organizer of Hamas in 1987 at the start of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, Yassin is both feared and loathed by Israelis. Pressed to free Yassin after signing the peace accord with the PLO in 1993, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin replied tartly: "If he can live outside Gaza for 10 years, I will think about his release."
Sentenced to "life plus 15 years" in the killing of two Israeli soldiers and four suspected Palestinian collaborators, Yassin has become a cause for young radicals in Hamas, and they have kidnaped, and killed, more Israeli soldiers in abortive attempts to win his freedom.
Educated as a religious teacher in Cairo, where he joined the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Yassin preached in Gaza's mosques for two decades that Palestinians had no hope of reclaiming land lost to Israel or establishing their own state until they adhered strictly to the precepts of Islam. Today, that fundamentalist call wins respect even among secularists.
"By virtue of his being in jail, Sheik Yassin exerts a moral influence that, within the context of Islam, exceeds that of anyone involved in day-to-day politics, because he maintains the purity of his dedication and is not part of the various controversies," pointed out Ziad Abu Amr, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Yassin emerged as a prominent Palestinian leader, Abu Amr argued, largely because of the failure of the PLO and neighboring Arab states to end the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
"For more than 10 years, the PLO was not delivering," he said, "and Yassin could say this proved the failure of secular nationalism."
With his Muslim Brotherhood links across the Arab world, Yassin was able to get funds for a network of schools, clinics and other community organizations, which formed the Islamic base here. His role grew after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
"If Muslims were to emulate Iran, they needed a charismatic figure, and that was Yassin," Abu Amr said. "He already was highly respected, particularly as an arbiter of social problems and disputes in the community. His physical problems added to his mystique--he had to be fed by visitors, they had to brush flies away from his face. His very helplessness made him strong. People would die for him."
From his prison cell in Kfar Yona in central Israel, Yassin today inveighs against both Israel and the autonomy accord, and he resolutely rejects offers of release--"I would rather stay in prison a hundred years"--that are conditioned on a pledge of nonviolence and acceptance of the pact.
"Peace with the Jews is considered a crime if it means legitimacy of the (Israeli) occupation and recognizing its right to exist in our usurped land while the Palestinian people remain refugees outside their country," Yassin said in an interview smuggled out last month to the London-based newspaper al-Hayat.
"But if it is peace in the sense of a truce, a cessation of hostilities for a set period," he continued, "Islam allows the imam (the leader) of the Muslims to sign such a peace if he finds strength in the enemy and weakness among the Muslims and if he needs time to build and prepare."
Yassin did say that Hamas could work with the Palestinian Authority, led by Arafat, as long as "the authority does not take hostile steps against the Islamic movement," combat the operations of Hamas' militia or establish a one-party political system.
But, he added, "we disagree with others on the state because we want it Islamic and they want it secular, not bound by the law of Islam or its system or its creed."
Yassin's health is poor and continues to deteriorate, according to Abdel Malik Dahamsha, his lawyer, who said that on his last visit the sheik could only talk for 10 minutes because of severe fatigue.
Yassin injured his spinal cord while playing soccer on the beach in Gaza in 1952 at the age of 16. His family had fled there from Ashkelon as refugees after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Gaza was then under Egyptian administration.
He studied in Cairo, returned here to teach in government schools until 1985 and preached in mosques up and down the Gaza Strip. His students form the leadership of Hamas, says Atef Adwan, a political scientist at Gaza's Islamic University and Yassin's biographer.
Yassin now suffers from chronic lung infections, digestive disorders and muscle deterioration, according to Dahamsha. Some of his medical problems were aggravated by police beatings, Dahamsha said, and others were not treated because prison doctors fear that he might die if anesthetized for an operation.
"The man is very sick, and the chance of his dying at any moment is high," Dahamsha said. "Israel should be aware that Yassin's death in prison would have great consequences."
Halima, Yassin's wife of 35 years, said that in their short, biweekly visits at the Kfar Yona prison she asks about his health but gets few answers because he asks about each of their 11 children.
"What he says, over and over, is, 'I am waiting to go to my next home, I am waiting to go to heaven,' " Halima Yassin said. "While he speaks of the present, his mind is really on the afterlife, on paradise and his reward."
Times researcher Summer Assad in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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Title: Founder of Islamic Resistance Movement
Personal: Educated at Al Azhar University, Cairo. Teacher of religion and Arabic literature. Preached at mosques in Gaza City for two decades. Imprisoned by Israel in 1989 for life plus 15 years. Married to Halima. Eight daughters, three sons.