Thousands of Palestinians jammed the streets of Gaza City for the funeral procession Monday of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed earlier in the day in an Israeli missile strike.
Calling it an assassination, Palestinian officials condemned the death of Yassin. Seven other people were killed in the Gaza City airstrike.
As Palestinian militant groups vowed revenge, Israeli officials said Yassin was a “terrorist” who deserved death.
Sixteen people were wounded in the attack, including two of Yassin’s sons; seven of the wounded were in critical condition, hospital spokesmen said.
Yassin, 67, was the highest-ranked Hamas official to be targeted by Israel.
Britain’s foreign minister called the attack “unlawful” and condemned it, as did other European leaders.
Yassin had used a wheelchair most of his life, after being paralyzed in a childhood accident.
A section of the wheelchair, including mangled wheels, were seen in the street after the attack. Gaza residents held up some of his tattered clothing and called for revenge.
Palestinian security sources told CNN that Yassin’s car and vehicles carrying his bodyguards were hit by three rockets as he was leaving a mosque following morning prayers. He was heading to his home, a short distance away.
The Israelis, however, said Yassin and the bodyguards were outside their vehicles when they were targeted.
Angry Hamas gunmen fired weapons into the air, promising revenge against Israel. Thousands of Yassin supporters, waving Palestinian flags, poured into the streets of Gaza City, chanting “Hamas is not dead.”
Izzedine al Qassam, the military wing of Hamas, threatened reprisals in a statement.
“Whoever decided to kill Yassin decided to kill hundreds of the Zionists,” the statement said, making reference to Israelis. The group also accused the United States of being complicit in the deadly attack.
“The Zionists cannot have carried out this act without the approval of the U.S. administration, which carries the responsibility for this crime,” the Izzedine al Qassam statement said.
Black smoke arose above Gaza City as Palestinians burned tires in protest, and explosions also were heard.
The Israel Defense Forces sealed off Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank.
Violence follows killing
After Yassin’s killing, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli troops protecting the Gush Katif settlement in southern Gaza, according to Israeli officials. Casualties were reported but not immediately confirmed.
A Qassam rocket was fired into the Erez industrial zone at the border crossing between Gaza and Israel, a Hamas spokesman told CNN. There were no reports of casualties.
And in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian armed with an axe attacked Israelis, authorities reported. There were no serious injuries. The Palestinian was arrested.
Mourners hold aloft a coffin during the funeral Monday of those killed in the Israeli airstrike.
“We condemn the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. It is a crime. It’s a cowardly act. It shows that Israel has chosen the path of more violence and further escalation,” the Palestinian Authority said in a statement.
The Palestinian militant group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades promised to wage war against Israel and attack Israeli settlements.
Saying Yassin was responsible for planning and directing terrorist attacks, Israel Defense Forces admitted targeting the Hamas leader.
“This morning, in a security forces operation in the northern Gaza Strip, the IDF targeted a car carrying the head of the Hamas terror organization, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and his aides,” an IDF statement said.
“Yassin, responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, both Israeli and foreign, was killed in the attack.”
‘Violence will breed violence’
Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat deplored Yassin’s killing as part of a “vicious cycle.”
“I think the whole situation is going down the drain,” Erakat said. “I think any time you have such things as the crime this morning, this will mean that things will be slipping outside our fingers like sand.”
He urged the international community to revive the peace process.
“Where do we go with this vicious cycle?” Erakat asked. “Bullets will breed bullets. Violence will breed violence.
“It’s more of the same. We break this vicious cycle only through reviving hope in the minds of people that peace is doable.”
Yassin’s death follows a decision made by the Israeli Cabinet last Tuesday to step up what it calls “targeted killings” of leaders of Palestinian militant groups and increase ground operations in Gaza after twin suicide attacks in the Israeli port city of Ashdod that killed 10 people.
“Sheikh Yassin was a dangerous, extremist Islamic idealogist. I believe that he was a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire region,” said Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman. “I believe the Middle East without Sheikh Yassin, in the long run, will be a better place to live.
“There might be some difficulties momentarily, but we are convinced that by eliminating this threat to peace, we will improve conditions in the Middle East in the future.”
Responsibility for the suicide bombings in Ashdod was claimed by Hamas and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Immediately after the bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon canceled a planned meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei.
The scheduled talks were an attempt to revive the so-called “road map” to Mideast peace. The plan, backed by the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia, calls for steps by both sides aimed at ending the conflict and establishing an independent Palestinian state by 2005.
Phase one of the plan calls on Palestinians to end their attacks and Israel to freeze settlement activity and dismantle settlements erected since March 2001.
Israel seized Gaza during the 1967 Six-Day War and began building settlements there soon after the conflict.
In 1994, under the Oslo Accords, Israel ceded most Gaza to the Palestinian Authority but kept control of the coastline, borders and 24 Jewish settlements, where about 7,500 Israelis live in heavily guarded enclaves.
Gaza is separated from Israel by a fence, but Israeli troops remain in the area to guard Jewish settlements.
Palestinians have formal self-rule over 58 percent of Gaza, according to the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.
Sentenced to life, freed under terms of deal
Last September, Yassin was slightly wounded in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City. At that time, thousands of Palestinian Hamas supporters marched through the streets of Gaza City in support of Yassin, who suffered a hand injury in the attack.
Yassin founded Hamas in 1987, during the Palestinian intifada. Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic organization whose military wing, Izzedine al Qassam, has carried out attacks on Israeli civilian and military targets. The U.S. State Department and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist organization.
An Israeli court convicted Yassin in 1989 of ordering Hamas members to kidnap and kill two Israeli soldiers. (Yassin: Key facts)
He was sentenced to life in prison, but was freed in 1997 under the terms of a deal arranged by the late King Hussein of Jordan, who asked Israel to release Yassin in exchange for two Israeli Mossad agents, who attempted to assassinate Khalid Mishaal, a Hamas leader in Jordan.
The Palestinian Authority has placed Yassin under house arrest on a number of occasions since his release, most recently in December, 2001, after a series of terror attacks that killed 25 Israelis. That detention triggered demonstrations and clashes with Palestinian police.
Yassin was born in 1938 in what was then the British mandate of Palestine. His family became refugees in Gaza during the violence that followed Israel’s creation in 1948.