Israel takes aim at Hamas but nothing can halt steady stream of respectful followers to the founder's door

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The man the Israelis had gone after with an F-16 aircraft and a 250kg laser-guided bomb was stretched out benignly on a bed yesterday, his robe as white as his beard, receiving a steady stream of respectful visitors, in apparent total unconcern at his dramatically confirmed status as a top target for Ariel Sharon's assassination policy.

The Israeli Prime Minister proclaimed yesterday that the leading members of Hamas, which among other attacks has claimed responsibility for the 22 deaths in the Jerusalem suicide bomb on 19 August, were all "marked for death".

Yet here was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the organisation's principal founder and spiritual leader, on the ground floor of his own home in Mujama-Islami Street less than 24 hours after the Israeli bomb injured 12 adults and five children. Most of them, including Sheikh Yassin himself, were slightly injured, but the bomb wrecked much of the building where he and others had enjoyed a lunch of meat, rice and Coca-Cola with other Hamas members at around 4pm on Saturday.

Reinforcing this surreal scene, nobody searched us as we entered and the one perfunctory concession to security was three unarmed men guarding the door. The wheelchair that Sheikh Yassin needs as a quadraplegic was parked by one of the walls, two of which were festooned with Hamas and religious posters.

The sheikh was happy to describe how he and his Hamas associate Ismail Haniya had just finished eating their meal when the rocket struck. "We saw a lot of dust. There was darkness and the walls were collapsing." The sheikh, who was carried out of the building by Mr Haniya, added: "We didn't know what was happening. God has saved us."

Amid blood-curdling calls for vengeance on Saturday, Sheikh Yassin had appeared to address Ariel Sharon when he said in front of an angry crowd after emerging from the Shifa hospital: "You will pay a price for this crime. The Israeli people will pay a price for this crime."

Yesterday, as students demonstrated in celebration of his survival in the attack, he was somewhat more muted, perhaps because he was talking to reporters. He said: "The issue is not vengeance ... there is no single Palestinian house, no single Palestinian family without a wounded one, a martyr, a prisoner. All Palestinian people have a right to defend themselves."

But his host at the lunch, Dr Marwan Abu Ras, professor of religion at the Islamic University, showed no such restraint. With a broken leg and cuts to his head and arms, Dr Marwan - the only one of the injured still being treated at Shifa hospital - had gone upstairs to visit his family on the second floor when the missile destroyed the unoccupied half-finished floor above, collapsing the upper staircase and damaging neighbouring buildings.

"Sharon wants to turn every Palestinian child into an explosive which blows up in the face of Jews," he said. "I am not a leader in Hamas," he insisted. "I am a professor. My home was blown up. I was almost killed. I would not shed any tears if all the Jews in Palestine were killed."

The Israeli army has said that it used a relatively light bomb precisely to avoid civilian casualties. Dr Marwan said that it had been Allah and not the "mercy of the Jews" that had saved him, still leaving open the question of whether the army had bungled the operation by leaving the ground floor more or less intact when a man in a wheelchair was unlikely to go upstairs - or had intended a shocking but not lethal warning, as some Palestinians believed.

Less in doubt was the impact on neighbours. In the house next door, Awani Asfur, whose nine-year-old son was cut by broken glass as he drew pictures by the window when the blast filled her children's bedroom with smoke, said: "Before, I was neutral. I was not an angry person. But now I am very angry. Hamas is defending our rights, our lands."

This goes to the heart of one aspect of the political crisis now threatening the Palestinian Authority (PA) and with it the road-map supposed to lead to the phased creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. The policy of assassinations of militants, or perhaps as much the potential casualties inflicted on non-militants, has helped to turn some Palestinian public opinion against Abu Mazen and his moderate, pro-negotiations stance. It has also helped, in the view of his supporters, to weaken his position in the power struggle with Yasser Arafat which reached a climax with the resignation of the Prime Minister on Saturday.

Abu Mazen left the PA's legislative council in its closed session in little doubt that he blamed Israel (and the US for not doing more to restrain Israel) as well as Mr Arafat and, reportedly, the Arab media for consistently undermining his position. In his open speech last Thursday he also mentioned - while making clear his anger at the militant Palestinian factions' tactics - the failure to freeze settlements, the continued construction of a 370-mile security fence encircling the West Bank and threatening to surround East Jerusalem, and the proliferation of checkpoints. The growth of checkpoints intensified yesterday as Israel stopped movement out of the occupied territories to protect itself against reprisals for the attack on Sheikh Yassin.

That is not to ignore for a moment the reality of Abu Mazen's complaints against Mr Arafat. The disputes over the control of the security services and who runs important parts of the PA's security apparatus are entirely real.

Abu Mazen told the legislative council bluntly on Saturday that the PLO and its chairman were simply not allowing him the authority appropriate to a head of government, and that he was not prepared to carry on in office without it. The compromise put to Abu Mazen of a seven-strong security council has failed to solve the crisis, because he fears with justice that it would be packed with Arafat supporters unless it was smaller. As one legislator put it after that meeting, the Palestinian Prime Minister had felt himself caught between a "rock and hard place" - Israel's hardline stance and the refusal of Mr Arafat to allow him the power he needed to do his job.

It was not immediately clear how - if at all - the crisis will now be resolved. Despite saying that his resignation was "final" last night, Abu Mazen just left the door ajar to a possible return but almost certainly only if he gets his way on the attempts to wrest power away from Mr Arafat, who, having seen much of his financial control over the PA diminished, now appears determined to retain power in other key areas.

Second, Mr Arafat's own apparent choice as an alternative, the parliamentary speaker, Abu Ala, looks likely to be unacceptable to either Israel or the United States precisely because he is, as a Fatah loyalist, Mr Arafat's choice.

Salam Fayad, the capable Finance Minister, might be, though he is a technocrat and not a politician, without a political base in the Palestinian "street" - despite winning a growing measure of approval in tackling corruption.

The real problem, however, is that almost any alternative would encounter the same problems as Abu Mazen has faced in his dealings with Mr Arafat. There are some signs that Abu Mazen thought his resignation would shock Israel and the US - who certainly did not want it to happen - so much that peace process might be jolted back to life.

In the region last night, despite protests from the United States that it still backed the road-map to peace, that hope was looking pretty forlorn.


19 MARCH 2003: Under pressure from the US and Israel, Yasser Arafat names his deputy in the Fatah movement, Abu Mazen, as the first Palestinian Prime Minister. President George Bush hails the move as a "sign of progress" in long-awaited Palestinian reforms.

22 MARCH: Abu Mazen immediately comes into conflict with Mr Arafat, and is forced to back down over his choice of Interior Minister.

23 APRIL: The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, warns that if "Yasser Arafat does not allow Abu Mazen to form the cabinet ... an opportunity of enormous importance will be lost".

24 APRIL: President Bush describes Abu Mazen as a "man dedicated to peace".

29 APRIL: Palestinian lawmakers finally approve a new government.

30 APRIL: Abu Mazen is sworn in, hours after suicide bombers from Mr Arafat's Fatah movement kill three people in a pub in Tel Aviv, right. In his speech, Abu Mazen says: "The road-map must be implemented not negotiated."

1 MAY: The US-backed "road-map" to peace is presented to both sides, with the Palestinians immediately accepting it.

17 MAY: Abu Mazen meets the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, in the first Israeli-Palestinian summit since summer 2000. Hours later, a suicide bombing kills seven people on a Jerusalem bus.

25 MAY: Israel's government conditionally accepts the road-map.

4 JUNE: Abu Mazen and Mr Sharon meet President Bush in Aqaba, Jordan, to launch the peace plan. Mr Bush praises Abu Mazen, saying he "represents the cause of freedom and statehood for the Palestinian people". Abu Mazen calls for an end to the intifada, with Mr Sharon declaring his support for the creation of a "democratic Palestinian state at peace with Israel".

11 MAY: A suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus kills 17, right. Within hours Israel fires missiles at a car in Gaza City, killing at least six people.

28 MAY: Under pressure from demonstrators in Ramallah, Abu Mazen promises to seek the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

29 MAY: The militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups and Mr Arafat's Fatah movement declare suspensions of attacks against Israel. Israel begins pulling troops out of Gaza.

2 JULY: Israel evacuates its troops from central Bethlehem, right, ceding control to Palestinian security forces.

3 JULY: Abu Mazen holds discussions with Hamas and Fatah. Palestinian police arrest four militants in connection with a rocket attack on Kfar Darom settlement in the Gaza Strip, triggering further demonstrations by Palestinians outside Abu Mazen's house.

8 JULY: In a largely symbolic gesture, Abu Mazen steps down as deputy head of Fatah central committee, and threatens to resign as Prime Minister unless Fatah backs his tactics in talks with Israel.

26 JULY: Mr Bush meets Abu Mazen at the White House. He says Abu Mazen has the "vision and courage and determination ... to break through old hatreds and barriers to peace".

6 AUGUST: Israel releases 339 Palestinians from two detention centres as a gesture of goodwill.

8 AUGUST: Two Hamas militants and an Israeli soldier are killed in an Israeli raid on a refugee camp in Nablus.

12 AUGUST: Two bus stop bombings in the West Bank and Israeli town of Rosh Haayin kill three Israelis, increasing pressure on Abu Mazen to fight militants. Israel suspends release of prisoners.

19 AUGUST: Hamas suicide bombing in a Jerusalem bus kills 22 people. Israeli army intensifies its military campaign to crush militants.

21 AUGUST: Palestinian militants call off two-month unilateral cease-fire after Israeli missile strike kills a Hamas political leader.

25 AUGUST: In his continuing power struggle with Abu Mazen, Mr Arafat appoints Jibril Rajoub, a direct rival, as national security adviser.

4 SEPTEMBER: Abu Mazen calls on parliament to support him or strip him of his post, saying in-fighting is keeping him from making progress on the road-map. He accuses Israel of failing to carry out its responsibilities under the road-map.

6 SEPTEMBER: Abu Mazen submits his resignation.