The assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin Monday as he left morning prayers marks a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and the end rhetorically and practically to the peace process.
The death of the wheelchair-bound cleric, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, is also likely to lead to a dramatic upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, analysts say.
"The [peace] process has been dead for a long time, but talk about it continued by the Americans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians. Now even the talk about the peace process will be put to rest for a period of time," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.
More than 200,000 Palestinians gathered Monday for funeral procession of the 67-year old sheikh. "Everyone here is like another Sheikh Yassin," says Iyad Hamdi, a stern-faced university student spray painting a message of revenge near the place where thousands of chairs were assembled for mourners. "Of course there will be more martyrdom operations. Because of this, another million people will will come out to take his place."
His friend, Mohammed Abdel Latif, says the assassination will only encourage more Palestinians to sacrifice themselves for the "cause," as Yassin did. "Hamas will not die with Sheikh Yassin," he declares.
Some Israeli strategists apparently hoped that, at the very least, it would be severely weakened. As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to float his "disengagement plan," which would entail a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip - including the 17 Jewish settlements there - and some of the West Bank, the Israeli military has grown concerned with the threat of Hamas capitalizing on the moment of retreat to declare a victory. The worry that Hamas would "win" in the withdrawal from Gaza - similar to the way Hizbullah scored a self-declared victory when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in the spring of 2000 - has unleashed an Israeli military drive to truncate the power of Hamas.
"There was a sense in the government that a strong blow had to be struck because Palestinian militants viewed the declarations of a readiness to withdraw as weakness," says Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "The feeling was that they need to be sent a message."
Mr. Alpher adds that the assassination will help Sharon silence the criticisms of those opposed to the withdrawal and dismantling of settlements. "It will make him popular with the Likud rank and file and help him get approval for the disengagement plan. And he knows the Americans will not object to this."
Professor Jarbawi adds that the assassination "is only the start, not the end of the process of targeting all leaders of Hamas."
"This is part of Israel's disengagement plan. They want to leave Gaza and not leave a strong Hamas behind," Jarbawi says. But he stressed the assassination will weaken the Palestinian Authority. "It is also suffering from what happened Tuesday. In the perception of Palestinians in the street the authority is impotent, it cannot secure Palestinians. People are assassinated and killed and the authority has no reaction but to condemn this."
Alpher adds: "This was a justified attack, but probably not a wise move. By now, we all know there is no military solution to the conflict. You can get rid of Yassin, but you haven't changed the overall equation. That has been the case with assassinations before. The terrorist organizations have the capacity to recover. There are plenty of people to fill in and Hamas now has more motivation." He added that he also expects it to lead to heavy casualties as Hamas retaliates.
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."
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.