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Sheikh Yassin: Reviled as Terrorist, Admired as Hero

The founder and spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was killed Monday morning in an Israeli airstrike near his home in Gaza. Ross Dunn looks at the controversy surrounding Sheikh Yassin's life, and his death.

When the Israeli rocket exploded it took with it a man reviled as a terrorist mass murderer and admired as a national hero.

From his wheelchair, the 67-year-old Imam held great sway over the members of Hamas, which the State Department includes on its list of terrorist organizations. He also occupied a position of respect among millions of other Palestinians, and other Muslims, as a man of learning who refused to compromise his principles, even after eight years in an Israeli prison.

Although the Palestinian Authority routinely condemns attacks by Hamas, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Monday Israel would regret killing Sheikh Yassin.

"It's a cowardly, criminal act against a prominent Palestinian leader who devoted all his life to the favor of the independence of his people. Therefore we strongly condemn this act and we warn everybody of reaction that may happen," he said.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat echoed these thoughts, declaring three days of official mourning for a man he called one of the Palestinian people's greatest martyrs.

But Israel says it only did something it should have done long ago.

Since 1994, Israelis have buried their dead from Hamas suicide bombings and other terror attacks, inspired and guided by Sheikh Yassin.

Israeli Army spokeswoman Ruth Yaron says the area is better off without him. "Ahmed Yassin was the chief of a terror organization, who was aiming at Israeli civilians, and his killing this morning is an action that will save many lives of Israelis who were his target," he said.

Indeed, in recent months, Hamas has increased its attacks as Israel's government threatens unilateral action designed to dictate the terms of a future Israeli-Palestinian border.

Ahmed Yassin was born in 1936 near the town of Ashkelon, which became part of Israel in 1948. A childhood accident left his arms and legs paralyzed for life.

Still, he went on to become a scholar in Islamic studies at the al-Azhar University in Cairo.

Through his studies, he became convinced that the area that is now Israel is Islamic land, and he committed himself to destroying the Jewish state in favor of a new nation under Muslim rule.

Sheikh Yassin first gained the attention of Israel after becoming a main founder of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, in 1987.

Two years later, Israel arrested him for ordering the execution of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. An Israeli court sentenced him to life in prison.

He was released eight years later as part of a prisoner exchange with Jordan.

The sheikh received a hero's welcome when he returned to Gaza, although he sometimes had strained relations with the Palestinian leadership. Mr. Arafat placed him under house arrest twice following Hamas terror attacks.

In recent months, as Hamas attacks have increased, Israeli officials have said Sheikh Yassin was marked for death. He was wounded in an Israeli attack last September. Still, he took few precautions.

On Monday, as he does routinely every day, Sheikh Yassin went to a mosque near his home in Gaza City for morning prayers. As he emerged from the mosque, helped in his wheelchair by several assistants, an Israeli aircraft fired a missile that killed him and several other people.

When he died, Sheikh Yassin was almost blind and hard of hearing, and he could speak only in a soft, high-pitched whisper, due to his paralysis. But he retained enormous influence, providing spiritual and theological justification for attacks on Israel.

After the killing, there was a chorus of criticism of Israel from around the world, and tremendous sadness and anger in Gaza, where tens of thousands of people marched in the sheikh's funeral Monday afternoon. And there is also renewed concern about terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.

Israeli officials say Hamas would attack anyway, but analysts say the killing of Sheikh Yassin could make the situation worse, with Hamas eager to show it can still function, and enlist more potential suicide bombers offering to avenge his death.