JERUSALEM – Israel will hunt and kill the founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in retaliation for a deadly attack on Israeli border guards, Israel’s deputy defense minister said in the bluntest warning yet against leaders of the Islamic militant group. Yassin, a quadriplegic, did not try to hide Friday, making his way to a Gaza City mosque near his home in a wheelchair pushed by an assistant.
“We do not fear the threat of death,” Yassin, wrapped in a brown blanket, told reporters outside the mosque. “We will not bow to pressure and resistance will continue until the occupation is destroyed.”
Yassin said he was not personally involved in planning attacks, denying allegations by Israeli security officials that he had approved Wednesday’s bombing in which a female suicide bomber killed four Israelis at the Erez crossing into Israel.
The Israeli officials also said Yassin issued a religious ruling allowing women to become bombers, after Hamas initially recruited only male assailants.
Israeli security officials met Wednesday at the Defense Ministry to weigh a response to the latest Hamas bombing. One official said targeted killings of senior Hamas members are likely to resume after a lull of several months.
Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said Yassin is a key target.
“Sheik Yassin is marked for death, and he should hide himself deep underground where he won’t know the difference between day and night. And we will find him in the tunnels, and we will eliminate him,” Boim told Israel Army Radio on Thursday night.
However, several security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Yassin was not mentioned specifically in the discussions at the Defense Ministry. Killing the Hamas founder would require approval by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the officials said.
An Israeli strike against Yassin, who is revered also by Palestinians who do not support Hamas, would likely provoke revenge bombings.
Yassin already dodged one Israeli attempt to kill him in September. A warplane dropped a 550-pound bomb on a building where he and other Hamas leaders were meeting, but Yassin escaped with just a small wound to his hand.
After several other high-profile but ineffective attacks against Palestinian leaders in the summer, Israel scaled back its attacks in concert with a significant drop in Hamas bombings.
However, there was never evidence of even an unspoken agreement between the two enemies. Israel insisted that the downturn was attributable to its own security forces, claiming that they arrested as many as 30 potential suicide bombers.
For their part, Hamas leaders, though often in hiding to avoid Israeli strikes, kept up their militant pronouncements and rebuffed efforts by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Egyptian mediators to declare a halt to attacks against Israelis. Yassin reiterated Friday that Hamas would not agree to a cease-fire.
The suicide bombing on Wednesday put an end to the “so-called quiet period,” said the Israeli air force commander, Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz.
Halutz denied that the reduction in Israel’s targeted killings was linked to a slowdown in Palestinian attacks.
“Since it is a preventive measure, it has nothing to do with the number of casualties that we have,” he said Thursday at a meeting of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Air force helicopters launching missiles have been used in most of the targeted killings, which Palestinians denounce as assassination of their leaders.
Without giving details, Halutz said the air force and military intelligence have developed “pinpoint” methods to “hit only those who deserve it.” However, dozens of bystanders have been killed in air strikes in towns, cities and refugee camps.
Israel closed the Gaza crossings after Wednesday’s bombings, preventing thousands of workers from reaching jobs in Israel and at an industrial zone near the Erez crossing.
Army Radio said Friday that security officials are at odds over the duration of the closure, with the military pushing to lift it Sunday morning, and the Shin Bet security service asking to keep it in place for an extended period.
The military argues that hardships for ordinary Palestinians should be minimized. Unemployment in Gaza is rampant, and closures worsen the problem.
Palestinian workers, who often spend more than an hour each day to get through the Erez crossing to jobs in Israel, worried that life would become even harder after the bombing. Some workers, though unwilling to directly criticize Hamas, questioned the wisdom of the target — the crossing they must use to get to their jobs.
“I think we have the right to fight to end the occupation, but at the same time we have to think 100 times before any act,” said Fawaz Radwan, 42, who works in a food factory near the Israeli town of Ashkelon.
Thousands marched through Gaza City during the funeral for the bomber, Reem Raiyshi, 22, a mother of two small children. Masked gunmen carried her coffin, draped in the green Hamas flag.