Israel marks out spiritual leader of Hamas for 'elimination'

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The Independent Online

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, has been "marked for death" by Israel, the Israeli deputy defence minister said yesterday.

Israel threatened to resume its campaign of assassinations of Hamas leaders in response to Wednesday's suicide bombing at the Erez border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel, in which four Israelis were killed.

It was Israel's resumption of assassinations that brought about the end of a unilateral ceasefire by Palestinian militants last summer. And it was a savage cycle of suicide bombings and Israeli assassinations that brought the peace process to its knees and ground the "road-map" peace plan into the dust last year.

Ze'ev Boim, Israel's deputy defence minister, told Israeli army radio: "Sheikh Yassin is marked for death, and he should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night." He later tried to soften his remarks and said that Sheikh Yassin had not been singled out.

Sheikh Yassin attended Friday prayers at a mosque in Gaza City, wrapped in a brown blanket, his wheelchair pushed by an assistant. "Death threats do not frighten us, we are in search of martyrdom," he said.

But he did appear to seek to protect himself by denying that he had had any involvement in planning or approving Wednesday's suicide bombing, the second ever Palestinian suicide bombing to be carried out by a mother, Reem al-Riashi, who had a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter.

Sheikh Yassin, a founder of Hamas, insists he has no role in planning military operations. He claims he is a spiritual leader for the organisation, which includes military and political wings, and also runs schools and provides social services.

Most Hamas leaders have been in hiding since August, when Israel unleashed assassination attempts against the leadership after a series of suicide bombings. Palestinian moderates have warned that such assassinations only provoke further suicide bombings.