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Killing of Yassin a turning point

Israel's disengagement strategy aims to disable Hamas before pulling out of Gaza.

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In Alpher's view, the assassination risks fueling a strong reaction in the wider Arab world that will backfire on Israel. "To the extent that Yassin was seen as an Arab leader by the Arab street, we've crossed a red line here. His status was close to the level of a head of state and the reaction could be quite harsh in Cairo and Amman. We will have to see the extent to which Arab leaders feel the need to punish Israel."

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Monday, Lebanon's Hizbullah guerrillas attacked Israeli posts in a disputed border area, drawing air raids, in retaliation for Yassin's killing, the wires reported. Hizbullah's al-Manar TV said Sheikh Ahmed Yassin Brigades, named after the assassinated leader, carried out the attacks on six Israeli positions.

The sheikh's killing drives home the increasingly dangerous disconnect in the way Israelis and Palestinians view each other's tactics in what one Hamas official, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, warns would now be an "all-out war." While the Israeli right defended the assassination as a legitimate step in their struggle against terrorism, Palestinians say it would only unify their splintered society and enlist more willing volunteers for suicide bombings.

Sharon called Yassin the "mastermind of Palestinian terror" and a "mass murderer who is among Israel's greatest enemies," the wires reported. He said Israel will press ahead with its war on terror, signaling more targeted attacks and raids. "The war against terror has not ended and will continue day after day, everywhere," he said.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that in the long run, the killing will weaken Hamas, according to The Associated Press. "If we have to balance how many more terrorists Yassin would have sent, how many terror attacks he would have approved, if we weigh this on the scales, we acted rightly," Mr. Mofaz told parliament's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a participant at the closed meeting.

To be sure, various Palestinian factions have stepped up their internal struggles to gain ground here and in the West Bank, given the near-collapse of the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern or maintain security. But many Palestinians say Yassin was quickly passing out of his position as the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas - whose name in Arabic stands for Islamic Resistance Movement - and into a role as an revered icon of the entire Palestinian people.

"People loved him much more than they loved Arafat," says Abed Nasser, a clean-shaven Palestinian who, in better times, worked as a laborer in Israel and never considered himself a Hamas supporter. "People are angry and crying. By tonight or tomorrow, there will be big operations against the Israelis because we will have to give them the same."

Yassin was born in 1938 under what was then mandatory Palestine. He was made a quadriplegic after an accident in childhood, and devoted his early adult years to Islamic studies. He studied at al Azhar University in Cairo, and later returned to his homeland as a believer in the concept that all of Palestine was a holy Muslim inheritance which could not be forfeited.

The sheikh, who established Hamas at the start of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, was originally seen by Israel as a potentially welcome antidote to the lure of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1993, at the signing of the Oslo Accords, it became apparent Mr. Arafat's faction of the PLO was prepared to embrace the idea of territorial compromise, while Hamas rejected the concept. The sheikh started out as something of a radical fringe leader but became increasingly popular as the peace process broke down.

He was arrested by Israelis in 1989 and sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering the killing of Palestinians who had allegedly collaborated with the Israeli army. He was released in 1997 in exchange for two agents from Israel's Mossad spy agency. Then in September last year, Israel tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him.