(CNSNews.com) - Israel braced for retaliation Monday after assassinating the founder and head of the Hamas terrorist group, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Hamas vowed "open war" after the death of the paraplegic cleric, who was killed when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles as he and associates left a mosque in Gaza City. Another seven Palestinians, including members of Yassin's bodyguard, were reportedly also killed.
Israeli deputy defense minister Ze'ev Boim confirmed on Israel Radio that Yassin had been "marked for death," while the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said he was directly linked to numerous terror attacks.
Former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, now finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government, said in a series of radio interviews that the assassination would in the long run rein in Hamas and other terror groups, as they realized that their leaders were not immune.
As news of Yassin's death spread, tens of thousands of angry Palestinians poured into the streets, and a general strike was called. The IDF closed off entry points between Israel and Palestinian Authority (PA)- ruled areas.
PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei called the assassination a "crazy act" while PA chairman Yasser Arafat said Israel had "crossed all red lines" by killing a "hero."
One of the most senior surviving Hamas leaders, Abdel el-Aziz Rantisi -- whom some Israeli ministers recently said should himself be killed -- declared "there will be no revenge; it's an open war."
Another terrorist group, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade of Yasser Arafat's Fatah, also promised revenge attacks, issuing a statement calling for "war, war, war on the sons of Zion."
Hamas has been responsible for the majority of the 112 suicide bombings which have killed more than 470 Israelis and injured thousands since the violent Palestinian uprising began in late 2000.
In Hamas' most recent attack (claimed jointly with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade), 10 Israelis were killed by two suicide bombers from Gaza at the Israeli port of Ashdod earlier this month. Yassin called the attack legitimate.
Hamas has also been responsible for the deaths of Americans. According to the Zionist Organization of America, at least 51 Americans have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks in the Middle East since the interim Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993.
Those killed in attacks claimed by Hamas include 15-year-old Malka Roth of New York, killed in a bombing at a Jerusalem pizzeria in Aug. 2001 and Yael Botwin, 14, of Los Angeles, killed in a Jerusalem bombing in Sept. 1997.
Hamas' killing of five young Americans in a bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2002 prompted Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to call on the Administration to demand that the PA surrender Yassin and others so they could be brought to trial in the U.S.
Although Israel has been its primary target, Hamas has not hidden its antagonism toward the U.S.
In January last year, Yassin led a demonstration in Gaza against the planned U.S. campaign against Iraq, and a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, announced that if the U.S. attacked Iraq, "all American targets will be open targets to every Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian."
Yassin's terrorist role
Although some Palestinian figures, political analysts and media commentators Monday were describing Yassin as a "moderate," the Bush Administration last year was clear in its view both of the sheikh and his organization.
Last August, President Bush announced the designation of six Hamas leaders, including Yassin, and five Hamas-related charities as "specially designated global terrorists," freezing any assets in the U.S. and prohibiting transactions with U.S. nationals.
A U.S. Treasury document released at the time described Hamas as "a terrorist organization that has intentionally killed hundreds of innocent civilians and continues to kill and maim with the aim of terrorizing a civilian population."
Of Yassin himself, the document said "he maintains a direct line of communication with other Hamas leaders on coordination of Hamas' military activities and openly admits that there is no distinguishing the political and military wings of Hamas. Yassin also conveys messages about operational planning to other Palestinian terrorist organizations.
"Surrounding Yassin is an entourage of personal 'bodyguards,' including many implicated in providing information and supplies to fugitives, recruiting personnel to undertake military operations, planning terrorist cells, attacking settlements, and manufacturing weapons and explosives," the Treasury document said.
Targeted for death
Israel's policy of "targeted killing" of terrorist leaders and planners during the uprising has drawn widespread condemnation from foreign governments.
The State Department has also opposed the policy, while acknowledging that Israel has the right to defend its citizens against terrorist attacks.
Yassin, who founded the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, in 1987, is the most senior Palestinian figure to be assassinated by Israel in the past decade.
Previous high-profile members of terrorist groups who have been killed include Hamas bombmaker Yayha Ayyash, nicknamed "the engineer," killed in Gaza in 1996 when a booby-trapped mobile telephone exploded.
Hamas avenged his killing by carrying out four suicide bombings, killing more than 50 Israelis.
In 1995, Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shkaki was shot dead in Malta, allegedly by Israeli gunmen.
With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposing to vacate all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip -- an area where observers says the PA's control is faltering -- Hamas has been talking about administering the area after an Israeli pullout.
Sharon's plan has drawn considerable opposition among Israelis, and a Jerusalem-based analyst on Monday pondered the possibility that a security deterioration unleashed by the killing of Yassin could scuttle the proposal altogether.
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