Al Joura, Palestine Mandate
Religious leader of Hamas
"There is a misconception in the world of the meaning of the word jihad; it comes from juhad and it means effort… . I can be a teacher and be practicing jihad, I can be a builder and be practicing jihad and I can be a fighter…. All people are part of the jihad whether they know it or not."
O ne of the worst threats to Israel is a man who is paralyzed below the neck and confined to a wheelchair. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is the religious leader of Hamas, the organization that has done as much as any other to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political struggle to a religious war.
Yassin has never been accused of murder or setting off a bomb himself. But his organization, Hamas, has been the main source of suicide bombers, a deadly and terrifying form of warfare against both military and civilian targets.
Yassin was born in 1936 or 1938—accounts vary—in the small village of Al Joura, located in a region then called the Palestine Mandate. The land came under British rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I (1914–18), but some Jews wanted to found a Jewish homeland there, and some Arabs wanted to found an independent state of Palestine on the same land.
In 1948 the Jewish state of Israel declared its independence. Immediately the armies of surrounding Arab states attacked the new country. Thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled their homes, including Yassin's family, which moved to a refugee camp called Shati in the Gaza Strip (a piece of Egyptian territory on the Mediterranean coast just south of Israel). Some refugees and their children still lived in the camp as the twenty-first century began, as repeated efforts to defeat Israel and found an Arab Palestinian state failed. But for many Palestinians, the dream never ended.
In 1952, as a teenager, Yassin was playing at the beach, doing somersaults, when he fell on his head, breaking his neck. The accident left him a quadriplegic (unable to move his arms or legs), confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Despite his handicap, Yassin continued his studies and became a teacher. On the side, he gave private math lessons. One of his students was the son of the Egyptian governor of Gaza, who also suffered a physical handicap. The governor recommended Yassin as someone who would make an excellent teacher of Islamic studies. As a teacher and a preacher in mosques (religious meeting places in Islam, similar to churches), Yassin became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic fundamentalist group. (A fundamentalist is a person who believes in living by a strict set of moral principles.) The Muslim Brotherhood was known for being opposed to the government of Egypt. Yassin was arrested during a visit to Cairo on suspicion of links to the Brotherhood, but he was soon released. He returned to Gaza as a recruiter for the organization.
Words to Know
- a symbolic leader who has no real power.
- a person who believes in living by a strict set of moral principles.
- Islam's holy book.
- religious meeting places in Islam, similar to churches.
- a person who is unable to move his arms or legs.
Entering the political scene
Yassin remained active in the Muslim Brotherhood while working as a religious teacher in Gaza. He founded the Islamic Center in Gaza, a cultural organization to help counter the influence of the secular (nonreligious) Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Yassin received support from Israel in setting up the Islamic Center, which developed into an important social and political organization, and soon become a deadly enemy of Israel.
After the Six Day War (June 1967) between Israel and neighboring Arab states, Yassin was active in the Palestinians' continuing resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, including the Gaza Strip. He was arrested in 1978 by Israel and jailed for seven years on charges of smuggling weapons. He was released from jail in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange between Israel and a terrorist organization called the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
The founding of Hamas
Two years later, in 1987, Palestinians launched a popular uprising against Israeli rule called the Intifada. The Intifada rocked both Israel and the PLO, which by then was negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Yassin founded Hamas—the name means "zeal," or extreme enthusiasm, in Arabic—as a way to gain influence over the Intifada and challenge the role of the PLO as the main organization representing Palestinians.
Hamas was effectively a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestinian territory, and Yassin became its chief religious leader. Hamas soon settled into a double role. On the one hand, it organized and trained Palestinians to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel, especially suicide bombings. (In a suicide bombing, the bomber straps explosives to his or her body and sets them off in the middle of a crowd, killing himself as well as the people around him.) In this way, Hamas came to be seen as a leader of the Intifada, which had actually started as a mass revolt by Palestinians. Hamas received enormous political benefits from the uprising.
On the other hand, Hamas organized educational and welfare activities. These enabled the organization to raise substantial sums of money from sympathetic Arab states, such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and even from Arab communities in the United States.
Leading from prison
In 1989 Yassin was convicted of taking part in a plot to kill Palestinians who had collaborated (cooperated) with the Israeli army. He was sentenced to life in prison. He remained in jail for eight years, steadily gaining fame as a symbol of Palestinian resistance. The fact that he was confined to a wheelchair, unable to move around without help, added to his fame.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood was the first Islamic fundamentalist organization in the modern era. It has been highly influential in the Arab world for more than seventy years. It was founded in 1928 by an Egyptian teacher, Hassan al-Banna, who supported a return to strict Islamic teachings in the Koran (Islam's holy book).
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded at a time when Egypt was emerging from centuries of rule by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had been defeated by Britain and France in World War I (1914–18). At the time Egypt, like other parts of the former empire, was controlled by Great Britain. Some Egyptians were eager to modernize Egyptian society, which largely meant adopting the culture and economic practices of Western Europe. The Muslim Brotherhood was a reaction against that modernization. The dream of the Brotherhood's founder was to use Islam as the basis for reorganizing Egyptian government and society. Within a decade of its founding, the movement had branches through North Africa and as far east as Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.
In its first decade, from 1928 to 1939, the organization was mostly aimed at young Egyptians. It concentrated on moral and social reform and operated educational programs. In the next decade, between 1939 and 1948, the Brotherhood took on a more political role. This was a period when Egypt was struggling to free itself from British influence. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood occasionally used terrorist tactics, and many members joined the fight against Israel in 1948. In the same year, the Brotherhood was linked to the assassination of Egypt's prime minister, Mahmud Nuqrashi, and was temporarily banned in Egypt.
For a few years after the war against Israel, the Brotherhood worked with Egyptians resisting British rule, led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970). But in 1954 the Brotherhood was outlawed again after being linked to an assassination plot against Nasser. For the next thirty years, the Muslim Brotherhood operated as an underground organization in Egypt.
The Brotherhood spread far beyond Egypt and set up branches in the largest Arab countries, especially Syria, Lebanon, and the Sudan. In the period after World War II (1939–45), many Arab states were trying to modernize their economies and societies. This put them on a collision course with the Brotherhood, who wanted to return to the rules of Islam that had been written down thirteen hundred years earlier. In many countries, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed but continued to operate as a secretive, underground organization, preaching its message to young men.
In Syria after 1980 membership in the Muslim Brotherhood was punishable by death. Syrian troops were reported to have killed about ten thousand people in the process of crushing an uprising by the Brotherhood in 1982.
In 1984 the Egyptian government lifted its legal ban on the Brotherhood but kept a close eye on its activities.
In the meantime, the military branch of Hamas, known as the al-Kassam Brigades, became a leading practitioner of suicide bombing (which Hamas called "martyr operations"). At first all suicide bombers were men, but later some young women also joined their ranks. It proved to be almost impossible to prevent suicide bombings, since there is no way to tell a suicide bomber from anyone else on the street, until the bomb goes off.
The bombers are convinced that their deaths will help the cause of Islam, and that they will be rewarded with eternal life in paradise, according to their understanding of the Koran, Islam's holy book. Often, their families also receive significant financial support.
Life after prison
In 1997 Israel was forced to release Yassin along with many other jailed Palestinian leaders. That year, two Israeli secret agents were arrested in Jordan in a failed attempt to assassinate another Hamas leader. The king of Jordan, who had
established peaceful relations with Israel, was furious that Israel had sent assassins into his country. As his price for not ending the peace, Israel agreed to release a number of jailed Palestinian resistance leaders, including Yassin. The release was a huge political gain for Yassin as a leader and for Hamas as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
Yassin emerged as an important public figure representing Hamas. In his wheelchair, Yassin clearly was not going to take up arms against Israel himself. Any direct attack by Israel against him would be seen as picking on a crippled, elderly religious figure, an unwise move in a world where television images can affect public opinion worldwide.
For his part, Yassin dropped his previous strong opposition to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. The PLO, working with the Israeli government and the United States, had reduced the contributions to Hamas, and consequently shut down much of the organization's welfare activities. In turn, public support for Hamas fell sharply.
The possibility of peace
Going against the political and military wings of Hamas, Yassin expressed limited support for negotiating a peace agreement with Israel, but only if Israel would withdraw to the territory it had occupied before the 1967 war, the same position held by the PLO. Other Hamas leaders bitterly criticized this position and asked Yassin to resign.
In October 1997, Yassin said in a television interview with the Al-Jazeera news agency:
We do not hate the Jews as Jews. We do not fight the Jews as Jews. We are fighting [people] who take our rights and our land, and our homes and our houses… . The Palestinian people want to return to their homes. For that reason, we are prepared to live with the Jews in the best possible circumstances, in brotherhood and a spirit of cooperation.
In September 2000, a second Palestinian Intifada began a new wave of violence in Israeli-occupied territory and in Israel itself. Hamas claimed responsibility for about half the suicide attacks launched against Israel in the first year of the uprising.
By 2001 Yassin had been largely reduced to a figure-head, a symbolic leader who has no real power. But his major contribution remained: the introduction of a strong religious element into what had been largely a political struggle between Palestinian leaders like Yasir Arafat (1929–; see entry) and the Israeli government. By introducing the power of religion, which plays a central role in the lives of many Muslims, Yassin immensely complicated the peace process in the region.
For More Information
Abu-Amr, Ziad. "Hamas: A Historical and Political Background." Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 1993, p. 5.
Darwish, Adel. "Grasping the Nettle." The Middle East, November 1999, p. 16.
"Deceptive Frailty." The Economist, December 19, 1992, p. 40.
McGreary, Johanna. "Radicals on the Rise: The Militant Islamic Group Hamas Enjoys a Boost in Popularity as It Goes about Its Business of Slaughtering Israelis." Time, December 17, 2001, p. 50.
Shahin, Mariam. "Simple Facts and Contradictions." The Middle East, December 2001, p. 8.
"Yassin, Ahmed." Current Biography, July 1998, p. 51.