Israel says Hamas leader Yassin 'marked for death'
( 2004-01-17 08:53) (Agencies)
Israel has "marked for death" Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, following a suicide bombing that killed four Israeli security personnel in Gaza, Israel's deputy defense chief said Friday.
The wheelchair-bound Muslim cleric attended Friday prayers at a mosque near his Gaza City home and told reporters he would embrace "martyrdom." A Palestinian cabinet minister said Israel was playing with fire by making the threat.
Thousands of Palestinians rallied Friday in support of Yassin in the Gaza Strip. Among the protesters were dozens of masked men who waved green flags as spokesmen announced that Hamas would fight on even if Israel killed its leaders.
"Israel will pay a heavy price for any attempt to harm the Sheikh and the (Hamas) political leadership," a statement released Friday by Hamas' armed wing said.
Hamas, an Islamic group dedicated to Israel's destruction, claimed responsibility for Wednesday's bombing by a Palestinian mother-of-two on the Gaza-Israel border. The attack, which left three Israeli soldiers and a security officer dead, further undermined chances of reviving a U.S.-backed peace plan.
The suicide bombing was Hamas' first by a female, and Yassin said Friday in response to criticism of her decision that he sympathized with critics but that fighting Israel was a "religious duty for every male and female."
"He is marked for death and he had better dig deep underground, where he won't be able to tell the difference between day and night," Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said of Yassin. "We will find him in his tunnels and liquidate him," he told Army Radio.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told Reuters: "Escalating the Israeli policy of assassinations will ... lead to more escalation and a widening of the cycle of violence, bloodshed and chaos."
Israel has scaled back its attacks on Hamas leaders after a steep drop in suicide bombings in the Jewish state and a series of largely failed attempts to kill them last year.
"I repeat that there is no room to speak about a truce," Yassin, surrounded by bodyguards, said outside the Gaza mosque. "Resistance must continue, until the removal of the occupation."
Asked if he feared for his life, he replied: "They have tried to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin before ... I would like to say to them: We do not fear death threats. We are seekers of martyrdom."
Israel's channel 2 television said Friday Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was considering changing the route of the West Bank barrier, which Israel says is a defense against suicide bombers.
In an interview on Israel's channel 1 television, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said the barrier's route could be changed and that this would be done if an agreement reached with the Palestinians required such a move.
Palestinians say the barrier is a land grab denying them land they want for an independent state. Sharon is facing mounting pressure from the international community and even his own justice minister to change the route.
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