Middle east: Spiritual leader of Hamas released from prison

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Israel yesterday pardoned Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation.

King Hussein of Jordan asked for his release, reportedly in exchange for two Israeli intelligence agents. Patrick Cockburn, in Jerusalem, examines the deal behind Sheikh Yassin's release.

Early yesterday morning the frail figure of 61-year-old Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, unable to move his limbs and almost stone deaf, was carried on a stretcher from his prison in Israel where he has been since 1989, to a Jordanian military helicopter, which flew him to Amman where he was met by King Hussein.

An Israeli statement said that he was being released to foster the peace process. In fact Israeli sources say he owes his freedom primarly to a botched Israeli attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan, which enraged King Hussein.

On arrival in Amman Sheikh Yassin, who in 1988 founded Hamas, responsible for the suicide bomb attacks which have done much to derail peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, sounded more coherent than expected. Speaking by phone to reporters in Gaza he said: "We salute you and all the Palestinian people in the occupied land and, God willing, we will meet soon on our own soil."

If Sheikh Yassin does return to Gaza, which can only be done with Israel's permission, his presence will make it more difficult for Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to deal harshly with Hamas. The exact state of his health is unclear. Musa Abu Marzook, another Hamas leader, said Sheikh Yassin had been on hunger strike for the last five days. He said: "Israel always exports its problems and I think it wants to export the health problem of Sheikh Yassin."

At first Sheikh Yassin's wife Halima cried on hearing the news of his release, saying: "This deportation is an order of separation between him and his family." However Mr Marzook, a senior Hamas leader, said Jordan would not have accepted Sheikh Yassin unless his transfer was a stepping stone in his return to Gaza.

Sheikh Yassin founded Hamas - the name is an acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement - in 1988 at the start of the Palestinian Intifada as a wing of the long-established Muslim Brothers in Palestine. The organisation only shifted to military action slowly in 1992 and in 1994 began, through its military branch, Izzedine al-Qassem, to launch its first suicide bomb attacks. Before the Palestinian intifada Israel encouraged Islamic fundamentalists like Sheikh Yassin in the hope of weakening secular nationalists like Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO.