Prague, 22 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Israel killed the co-founder and spiritual leader of the militant Hamas movement in a helicopter strike today, and Palestinians are vowing to avenge his death.
Armed fighters carried Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's body through the streets of Gaza City in a coffin draped with the flag of the Hamas militant movement he founded. Tens of thousands of mourners and supporters of different Palestinian factions accompanied the funeral procession.
"All of us understand Israel's need to defend itself, and it is fully entitled to do that against the terrorism which affects it, within international law. But it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing."
Some observers are raising the possibility -- given the standing that Yassin enjoyed in the Islamic world -- that his death could increase the chances of Palestinian militants becoming more involved in acts of extremism outside the Middle East. It is taken for granted that the assassination will lead to a cycle of revenge actions within Israel from Hamas and other militant Palestinian factions. Lilli Galili, a correspondent for the leading Israeli "Haaretz" newspaper, said, "We are all now expecting retaliation, on a large scale, much more so than before, and therefore we are not convinced, on the one hand, that [Yassin's death] will stop Hamas, which is not an organization run by one person only, and if you eliminate this person, you put an end to this whole operation. Emotion is running high among the Palestinians, and we are going to pay the price."
But beyond that, observers note the potential for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to become internationalized, meaning organizations such as Al-Qaeda could carry out attacks elsewhere on behalf of Palestinians, or that Palestinians could begin to aim at targets outside Israel in the Western world.
The United States is a strong ally of Israel, and Palestinians see Washington -- despite its efforts in negotiating a peaceful settlement to the conflict -- as playing favorites in the region. Comments today from U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are unlikely to dispel such notions.
"Let's remember that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that Sheikh Yassin has himself, personally, we believe, been involved in terrorist planning. But, of course, the United States did not have advance warning [of Israel's attack on Yassin]," Rice said.
London-based analyst Tim Garden, who is with the Institute for International Affairs, says he believes the repercussions of Yassin's assassination could, indeed, be grave. At the very least, he says there will be an indirect impact on the international terror scene.
"What will certainly be true is that the wider Muslim community will perceive this as yet another cause for being anti-Western, and the more you have an anti-Western public opinion, then the more people are likely to be recruited into the wilder fringes of international terrorism and Al-Qaeda-linked organizations," Garden said.
Garden tends to doubt, however, that any link between Palestinian extremists and major international groups will be more formal than that.
"The biggest problem is that as long as we have this running sore of the deepening violence in Israel and the occupied territories, it is very difficult to convince the Muslim world in general that the West is serious about democracy and justice. And that then acts as a recruiting agent for a whole series of different Islamic-sponsored groups, some of which are very dangerous."
Israel's policy of assassination of Palestinian militant leaders is a controversial one, both at home and abroad. The initial comments today by top European officials are indicative of the criticism which Israel likely will continue to receive.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "All of us understand Israel's need to defend itself, and it is fully entitled to do that against the terrorism which affects it, within international law. But it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing, and we, therefore, condemn it. It is unacceptable. It is unjustified. And it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also spoke out today against Yassin's assassination.
"France condemns this action against Sheikh Yassin. At a time when it is so important to mobilize ourselves for the revival of the [Middle East] peace process, such acts can only fuel the cycle of violence."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, however, couched Yassin's assassination as part of the wider war against terrorism.
"I want to make clear the war on terrorism is not over and it will continue daily everywhere. This is a difficult campaign that the entire free world understands they must take part in. It is the right of the Jewish people and every nation trying to survive to go after those who seek their destruction," Sharon said.
Yassin had survived an attempt by Israel against his life last year, and he realized he could well become a martyr to his cause. The 68-year-old Yassin was confined to a wheelchair following a childhood accident and spoke habitually in a labored whisper. Yet, it was a whisper that could rouse thousands of faithful to action.
He was committed to the jihad, or holy struggle, against Israel, but nevertheless was one of the Muslim leaders who condemned the 11 September attacks on the United States.
For many Israelis, the killing of Yassin is justified on both moral and practical grounds. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said, "Ahmed Yassin was a terrorist leader, the Palestinian [Osama] bin Laden. His hands were covered in the blood of Israelis, children, women, and babies. He sent the murderers to carry out the biggest [suicide] attacks against Israel."
Palestinian militants have said the first response to Yassin's assassination will come within hours.