The Israeli government’s assassination of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin has ignited a firestorm of outrage and turmoil throughout the Middle East and far beyond.

The blind, quadriplegic, and wheelchair-bound Yassin, 67, was killed in Gaza City on March 22 when U.S.-supplied Israeli helicopters fired at least three air-to-ground missiles on the Palestinian cleric as he was returning home from early morning prayers at his mosque. Seven other Palestinians were killed and 17 were wounded in the attack.

The government of Ariel Sharon claimed responsibility for the attack, with a spokesman noting that the Israeli prime minister personally authorized and supervised the killing. Israeli officials justified the action by claiming that Yassin was the mastermind of terrorist actions against Israel.

Calling the incident a “cold-blooded execution,” the Jerusalem-based Palestinian group MIFTAH said it was “an assault on all Palestinians” that was deliberately intended to enflame an already volatile situation and to undermine peace efforts. The group, which includes Hanan Asrawi on its board, denounced the longstanding Israeli policy of summarily executing Palestinian leaders without trial, so-called “extrajudicial killings.”

The Communist Party of Israel said, “The murder of Sheikh Yassin by the Israeli army is an act of state terrorism serving the occupation, sabotaging the chances for a negotiated solution, and a step likely to intensify the bloodbath of Israelis and Palestinians.” It called for intensifying the struggle against the occupation and “the apartheid wall and road blocks,” and reaffirmed its advocacy of a two-state solution with justice for Palestinian refugees.

Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, declared a three-day period of mourning.

Spontaneous eruptions of anger broke out across the Arab world. Yassin’s funeral became the largest demonstration in the Gaza Strip in more than a decade when 100,000 people attended to mourn and protest his assassination. Many Palestinians who do not agree with Yassin’s views were nonetheless moved to express their anger and solidarity, perceiving him as a symbol of unflinching resistance to the Israeli occupation.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan denounced Yassin’s killing as a “targeted assassination.” He continued, “Such actions are not only contrary to international law, but they do not do anything to help the search for a peaceful solution.”

Jack Straw, British foreign secretary under Tony Blair, condemned the killing as “unlawful” and “unacceptable.” Similar government statements poured in from all continents.

Mitchell Plotnick of the San Francisco-based Jewish Voice for Peace criticized the killing, saying, “Ariel Sharon has once again put Israeli lives in peril with an act that is sure to escalate the violence in this conflict.”

National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice refused to condemn the cleric’s assassination, but as worldwide outrage mounted, other Bush administration spokespersons felt compelled to express mild misgivings. The U.S. government is Israel’s chief military and financial backer, relying on Israel as a strategic stronghold in the oil-rich Middle East.

Sheikh Ahmad Yassin is by far the most senior and prestigious Palestinian leader to be assassinated by the Israeli government. Coming out of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, Yassin espoused adherence to strict, ultra-conservative Islamic traditions. He founded the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, in the late 1980s, around the time of the first Palestinian intifada. In its early days, Hamas received the Israeli government’s support in the latter’s bid to counterbalance the more secular and progressive elements in the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Hamas operates a network of schools and hospitals across the West Bank and Gaza, providing much-needed human services. At the same time, its military wing, the Izzedine al Qassam Brigades, has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent Israeli civilians, actions emphatically condemned by the Palestinian and Israeli left.

Ironically, one of the consequences of Yassin’s assassination, says Danny Rubinstein, a writer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, may be to strengthen Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.

“The more Israel hits Hamas leaders and rank-and-file members,” he writes, “the more their popularity climbs.” Such a dynamic could lead to further chaos in the occupied territories, he says.

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