Ailing Hamas co-founder remains a potent symbol for Palestinians

JERUSALEM — The Muslim cleric who was released on the eve of Rosh Hashanah has been a thorn in Israel's side for more than a decade.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, 61, is frail and seriously ill. A quadriplegic who is nearly blind, he recently suffered from a kidney disease as well as hearing difficulties.

But as the co-founder of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, he is a potent symbol to his followers far beyond his physical state.

Yassin returned to a tumultuous welcome in the Gaza Strip Monday, days after Israel freed him in a deal struck with Jordan to secure the release of two Mossad agents who were captured after the failed attempt to assassinate a senior Hamas official in Amman.

Yassin was born in the village of Jawarah, near Ashkelon. His family fled to the Gaza Strip during Israel's 1948 War of Independence and resided in the Shati refugee camp, north of Gaza City.

Despite his physical disability — he became paralyzed at the age of 3 — Yassin became actively involved as a young man in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group militantly opposed to Israel's existence.

He received his religious training at the Ein Shams University in Cairo and formed a local group opposed to the traditional leadership of the brotherhood, which has followers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

In the early 1970s, Yassin was a co-founder of the Al-Mujama al-Islami, or the Islamic Union, a socio-religious movement that operated from the local mosques in Gaza with the primary goal of improving the living standards of Palestinians.

The union won supporters by establishing a network of schools, health services and other social services that had previously been virtually nonexistent.

When this correspondent met Yassin in the early 1980s at his residence in one of Gaza's poorer neighborhoods, he was already well-known to the Israeli security service but was relatively unknown to the Israeli public.

At the time he was in his 40s, but sitting debilitated on a mattress in a modest living room, he already looked like an old man.

Despite his infirmity, when he spoke in his high-pitched voice, he was both self-confident and menacing.

He rejected any possible compromise with what he described as the Israeli enemy, although he refrained at the time from calling for a holy war against the Jewish state.

By 1984, Yassin transformed his religious and political convictions into a violent credo, and he began preparing his followers for underground military activities against Israel.

Israel outlawed his organization at the time, and he was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in jail. A year later, he was released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Yassin co-founded Hamas as an armed underground movement on Dec. 14, 1987, five days after the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada began.

In May 1989, Israel arrested Yassin and sentenced him to life imprisonment for ordering the deaths of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel.

Almost immediately, Arab officials and militant leaders began a campaign to pressure for Yassin's release.

Israeli officials, who regarded him as a valuable bargaining chip, occasionally flirted with the idea of freeing him.

But keeping him imprisoned was always a dangerous proposition for Israel. Had he died while in an Israeli jail, according to many observers, he would have been regarded as a martyr by his followers, who could well have launched a new intifada.

That possibility was defused last week, when Yassin was released from prison before daybreak on Oct. 1 and flown by helicopter to Jordan.

Israeli officials refuse to confirm or deny reports that Yassin was freed in exchange for the release of two Mossad agents who on Sept. 25 allegedly attempted to kill another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

But the two agents were returned to Israel Monday as Yassin himself received a tumultuous welcome upon his arrival in Gaza.

During his imprisonment, Yassin moderated his positions, calling on his followers to end terrorist attacks in Israel. According to some observers, his change of position was at least partly intended to help win release.

Yassin continued in that moderate vein this week, saying during an interview with Israel Television's Arabic-language service that he was prepared "to live with the Jews, the best life, in brotherhood and cooperation and coexistence, on condition that they do not gobble up our rights."

These rights, he said, included the right of return for some 4 million Palestinians "who want to return to their homes [in Israel] from which they were expelled."

In another interview Sunday, Yassin said Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — which are often at odds over strategies — share the same goals.

"We are one people, we are in one path even if our views differ, our relationship is one of brotherhood," Yassin said. "We are in one national path to build our homeland, our state, our entity, our future, our civilization, and our presence, to restore our rights. We will remain one people and, will die, God willing, one people."