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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israel Assassinates Leader of Hamas

ReutersPalestinians carrying the coffin of slain Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin during his funeral in the Gaza Strip on Monday.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on Monday, striking its heaviest blow against the Palestinian Islamic militant group behind dozens of suicide bombings and provoking threats of revenge.

Israeli security sources said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personally ordered and monitored the helicopter attack on the paralyzed cleric, whose wheelchair lay smashed in a pool of blood after three missiles exploded outside a Gaza mosque.

Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, has killed hundreds of people in a decade of suicide attacks. But previous assassinations have triggered more bombings and deepened violence that has stalled U.S.-backed peace moves.

The assassination was Israel's biggest since the April 1988 killing in Tunis of Palestinian commando chief Abu Jihad. At least seven other people were killed in the Gaza strike, and two of Yassin's sons were among the 15 wounded.

The attack on Yassin, 67, as he and his entourage left dawn prayers may have been aimed at weakening Hamas to prevent it from claiming victory if Sharon goes ahead with a unilateral pullout from Gaza.

For many years Israel held back from killing Yassin, though he escaped an assassination attempt last September.

"The state of Israel this morning hit the first and foremost leader of the Palestinian terrorist murderers," Sharon said.

But some Israelis, including a member of Sharon's Cabinet, Arab leaders and many Middle East political analysts said his death would only encourage militants to step up attacks.

Sharon has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians until attacks on Israelis stop. He has threatened to draw a West Bank "security line" that would leave them with less land than they seek for a state should the road map remain stalled.

"It is a clear message to the world that the Israelis are not ready to sit with the Palestinians for peace," Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia told reporters after the killing, which he said "opened the door to chaos."

Ricardo Mazalan / AP

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

About 200,000 mourners poured out their grief in a funeral procession for Yassin and the other dead. It was the biggest show of support for a Palestinian leader since Yasser Arafat's triumphant entry into the Gaza Strip in 1994.

"Sharon, start preparing your body bags because [Hamas'] Qassam Brigades will put Israeli houses in mourning and make a funeral in every Israeli street," the crowd chanted.

Eyes burning with tears and rage, mourners reached to touch Yassin's Islamic-flag-draped coffin. The flags of Palestinian factions flapped in the wind in a stark and dusty cemetery.

A barrage of homemade Hamas rockets roared out of Gaza toward Israeli targets, and Palestinian witnesses said Israeli tanks returned fire. No casualties were reported.

In signs of revenge in Israel, a Palestinian wounded three Israelis with an axe near Tel Aviv. Police said an Arab stabbed three passengers on an Israeli bus in Jaffa before fleeing.

Protests erupted in the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli forces killed four Palestinians, including an 11-year-old and at least one gunman.

Washington denied Hamas accusations it had given Israel the green light to kill Yassin and appealed for regional calm. Asked whether Sharon had called U.S. President George W. Bush directly to tell him Israel planned the killing, Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said on television, "He did not."

She did not directly condemn the attack. "Let's remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that Sheikh Yassin himself has been heavily involved in terrorism," she said.

The European Union criticized the "extrajudicial killing" but also recalled past EU condemnations of suicide bombings.

A witness said a missile destroyed Yassin's wheelchair and the Hamas leader lay on the ground. "People there darted left and right. Then another two missiles landed."

Yassin's son Mohammed, who was unhurt, said he had remarked to his father about three hours before the attack about an Israeli reconnaissance plane spotted in the sky. "He said: 'We seek martyrdom. ... To Him we belong and to Him we return.'"

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking to reporters, called Yassin "the Palestinian [Osama] bin Laden."

But Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz said Yassin was not "a ticking bomb," and revenge could cost many Israeli lives.

Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas attacked Israeli posts, drawing an air strike, after saying Israel would pay heavily.

Palestinian Authority officials called Yassin a moderating force in Hamas, an Islamic movement he co-founded in 1987 with encouragement from Israel, which hoped the new group would undercut its long-time enemy, PLO chief Arafat.

Israel's actions spooked markets. U.S. and European stocks fell along with the dollar on worries of more violence and possible revenge by militants in the Middle East and abroad.