Yassin Instilled Passion for Glory of ‘Martyrdom’

Times Staff Writer

Whenever Sheik Ahmed Yassin was asked if he feared assassination at Israel’s hands -- an often-posed query in his final months, as one lieutenant after another was targeted for fiery death by Israeli helicopter gunships -- the white-scarved cleric would fix his questioner with a piercing gaze while a half-smile played across his waxy features.

“All my life,” he would declare in his high-pitched voice, “I have dreamed of martyrdom.” In killing the spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, Israel may have granted him his greatest wish -- and made him the ultimate symbol of the violently self-immolating ideology he propounded.

Even before the outbreak of the Palestinians’ 42-month-old intifada, or uprising, Hamas was at the forefront of the campaign of suicide bombings that has haunted Israeli cities and towns. With grim regularity, members of its military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam, murmured their final prayers, strapped on explosives belts and blew themselves up in crowded cafes and buses.

The frail and ailing Yassin, although himself the picture of physical powerlessness, probably did more than any other figure to sear into the consciousness of these young Palestinians the notion that a death sought in order to inflict a bloody blow upon a hated enemy was a glorious one.


That stature is a double-edged sword for Israel -- on the one hand, Yassin is held in such high regard by ordinary Palestinians that a strike at him is incendiary. On the other hand, leaving him free to preach his message of holy war against the Jewish state is regarded by many in the Israeli security establishment as equally dangerous.

The strike at Yassin was not completely unexpected. Following a double suicide bombing last week at the Israeli port of Ashdod that killed 10 port workers -- the conflict’s first successful Palestinian strike at a major piece of Israeli infrastructure -- the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had reportedly decided to renew the targeting of senior leaders of Palestinian militant groups, a policy it had quietly put on hold.

In the already chaotic Gaza Strip, the level of violence has been steadily rising in recent weeks. Sharon has unveiled an initiative to uproot Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, and Israel, loath to let it appear that it is being driven out of the seaside territory, has staged a sharp series of military incursions in crowded refugee camps and in Gaza City itself. Hamas and the other Palestinian militant groups, already crowing at what they portray as a crushing defeat for Israel, have recently cemented alliances among themselves, carrying out a string of attacks in concert.

Israeli officials have also been worried about logistical and other aid coming from radical Islamic groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which had remained on the fringes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since it was born in the volatile milieu of Gaza’s refugee camps in the late 1980s, in the early days of the Palestinians’ first intifada, suicide ideology was part of the philosophical underpinnings of Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. But the key element of that struggle was popular resistance -- stone-throwing street protests that swept up everyone from children to elderly women.

The current intifada, which erupted in September 2000, much more quickly assumed the dimensions of full-on armed conflict between the two sides. While other, newer groups such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade struck out with roadside shootings and guerrilla-style attacks on Israeli troops, Hamas made suicide bombings its weapon of choice -- and the other Palestinian militant groups, alarmed by the stature and popularity Hamas was afforded as a result, scrambled to follow suit, in what evolved into a grisly competition of sorts.

For Hamas and its followers, “martyrdom” was the constant watchword -- shouted over and over at mass rallies that flowed like unruly rivers through the streets of the Gaza Strip, ceaselessly invoked in the scripted videotapes that assailants left behind, seamlessly incorporated into lessons taught to Palestinian schoolchildren.

Yassin always denied any personal involvement in the planning and execution of suicide attacks. But in mosque sermons and teachings, he repeatedly portrayed them as a divinely inspired means for the weak to strike at the powerful. He depicted such attacks not as a mere military strategy, but a means of those who carried them out to automatically achieve oneness with God -- something Yassin himself professed to long for. The many innocent victims of suicide bombings, mounting into the hundreds as the intifada dragged on, were never even part of the equation.


When Israel began employing the strategy of “pinpoint killings” -- assassinations, the Palestinians called them -- against Hamas operatives, the casualties of this campaign were held up as martyrs, presented as examples, just like suicide bombers, of willing self-sacrifice for the Palestinian national cause.

“There is no greater glory,” Yassin said last year, delivering a eulogy to a Hamas field commander who was killed by Israeli helicopter-fired missiles. Despite his disability -- a childhood accident left him almost completely paralyzed -- the sheik was a familiar figure in Gaza. Last summer, when Israel began taking aim at the ranks of Hamas’ “political” leadership after a series of attacks against Israelis, many on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide initially believed that Yassin was unlikely to be singled out as a target for a variety of reasons, including his frailty and his status as a cleric. Yassin escaped death in September when Israeli warplanes bombed a building in which nearly the entire Hamas leadership was meeting. That triggered debate in Israeli political and security circles about the wisdom of targeting him, with many arguing that killing him would trigger an explosion of violence across the Palestinian territories.

At the time, the consensus seemed to be that if the sheik was killed as a result of a larger strike at the leadership echelon, it would seem a less drastic step than going after him personally.

Over the last seven or eight months, during the most intense phases of Israel’s anti-Hamas campaign, Yassin, like other prominent leaders of the main Palestinian militant groups, periodically dropped out of sight.


But for much of that time, he remained defiantly in view, holding court at his home in a slum neighborhood in Gaza City. Late last year, during the holy month of Ramadan, lines of ragged supplicants stretched out the door of Yassin’s home. Inside, the sheik received a chosen few, speaking with them as his ever-attentive acolytes hovered over his wheelchair, adjusting his snowy headscarf, tucking a heavy brown blanket around him against the chill.

King, The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau chief, reported from Alexandria, Va.