By Nidal al-Mughrabi-
GAZA (Reuters) - Israel
assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin outside a Gaza
mosque Monday, striking its heaviest blow against the
Palestinian resistance group and drawing enraged vows of
Israeli security sources said Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon personally ordered and monitored the
helicopter attack against the paralyzed cleric, whose
wheelchair lay smashed in a pool of blood after three
It was the highest-profile
assassination of a Palestinian since the April 1988 killing
in Tunis of Palestinian commando chief Khalil al-Wazir. At
least seven other people died in the Gaza strike and two of
Yassin's sons were among 15 wounded.
The attack on Yassin as he and his
entourage left dawn prayers seemed to be aimed at weakening
Hamas to prevent it from claiming victory should Sharon go
ahead with a planned unilateral pullout from Gaza.
After the first missile hit, a witness
told Reuters: "I looked to see where Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
was. He was lying on the ground and his wheelchair was
destroyed. People there darted left and right. Then another
two missiles landed."
Another one of Yassin's sons,
Mohammed, told Reuters he had remarked to his father about
three hours before the attack about an Israeli
reconnaissance plane spotted in the sky.
"He said, 'We seek martyrdom....to
Him (God) we belong to Him and to Him we return."'
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz,
speaking to reporters, called Yassin "the Palestinian
(Osama) bin Laden" and pledged more Israeli attacks on
Hamas's top echelon.
But a dissenting voice in the
Israeli cabinet, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, said
Yassin -- Hamas's spiritual leader -- was not "a ticking
bomb" and voiced concern that his death could lead to the
loss of many more Israeli lives in suicide attacks.
Previous assassinations of Palestinian
resistance leaders have triggered waves of suicide bombings
that have turned Israeli buses, restaurants and cafes into
charred wrecks and deepened violence that has stalled a
U.S.-backed peace "road map."
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians
poured out their grief in a funeral procession for Yassin
and the other dead.
While espousing "armed struggle,"
Yassin's movement also ran a broad welfare network for
Palestinians and he was seen by many in the West Bank and
Gaza as a heroic symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation.
"DOOR TO CHAOS"
Officials in the Palestinian Authority
called Yassin a moderating force in Hamas, an Islamic
movement he co-founded in 1987 with encouragement from
Israel, which hoped the new group would undercut its
long-time enemy, PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
"It is a clear message to the world
that the Israelis are not ready to sit with the Palestinians
for peace," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Quorie told
reporters after the killing, which he said "opened the door
With eyes burning with tears and rage,
mourners reached out to touch Yassin's Islamic flag-draped
coffin in the biggest public turnout in Gaza since Arafat's
triumphant entry in 1994 after interim peace deals with
"Sharon, start preparing your body
bags because (Hamas's) Qassam Brigades will put Israeli
houses in mourning and make a funeral in every Israeli
street," the crowd chanted.
In the first sign of revenge within
Israel, a Palestinian with an axe hurt three people outside
an army base near Tel Aviv, Israeli police said. He was
In scenes reminiscent of the start
of a Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000,
protests erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Witnesses said Israeli forces
killed a gunman in the Gaza Strip and an 11-year-old during
a demonstration in the area.
In the West Bank city of Nablus,
witnesses said soldiers shot dead a university
student-reporter during an anti-Israeli protest. The army
said he was a gunman who fired at the troops.
The Israeli army sealed off the West
Bank and Gaza Strip to stop any Palestinians entering
Mosques called an immediate general
strike. Arafat, the Palestinian president, declared three
days of mourning. He and his cabinet stood in a moment of
silence at the start of an emergency meeting.
A senior State Department official
urged all sides to remain calm. The United States brands
Hamas a terrorist group.
Hamas said it believed Washington,
where Sharon hopes to win support for go-it-alone steps
Palestinians fear could turn into an Israeli land grab in
the West Bank, had given the green light for Yassin's
In Brussels, the
European Union condemned Israel's "extra-judicial killing"
as illegal and likely to further inflame violence.