Yasin, Ahmad (c. 1936–2004)
Palestinian Ahmad Yasin (known as Shaykh Ahmad Yasin or Yassin) worked for many years as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies and as a preacher and social activist, but is best known as a founder and spiritual leader of the Palestinian group Hamas. He was never trained as a formal religious leader, but was called shaykh because of his work preaching and his knowledge of Islam. Yasin eventually embraced the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and consequentially became active in promoting the revival of Islam as a complete way of life. He was also active in establishing an influential charitable organization following the Israeli occupation of Gaza in June 1967. As one of the founders of Hamas in 1987–1988, he was seen as the spiritual leader of the movement, guiding its actions. He was known among Palestinians for his simple and humble lifestyle, and was married to a Palestinian woman named Halima with whom he had eleven children. Israelis and many others have vilified him for his militant stands on Palestinian demands for liberation of Palestine and for encouraging suicide bombings. Upon his release from jail in October 1997 in a prisoner exchange, almost deaf and blind in addition to being in a wheelchair, he became much more well known outside of Hamas as a symbol of the new forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation that were competing with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). He was assassinated by the Israelis in March 2004.
Yasin was born in about 1936 in the fishing village of al-Jura (near the town of Asqalan) on the southern coast of mandatory Palestine. His father died when Yasin was young. Yasin had two brothers and a sister, as well as other siblings from his father's other marriage. He studied in the school in al-Jura until the fifth grade when the village was emptied of its inhabitants in the 1948 War and destroyed; it subsequently was absorbed into the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Yasin became a refugee with his family in the Gaza Strip, in Shati (Beach) camp, and, as did the majority of refugees, lived in extreme poverty. In 1949 to 1950 he worked in a small restaurant in Gaza to help support his family, and then returned to school. As a child he was called Ahmad Sa'da (after his mother Sa'da Abdullah al-Habil) because there were so many Ahmads in the Yasin family. Active in sports (he participated in soccer, boxing, and gymnastics), he broke his neck at age sixteen while playing with friends. It is said that he was wrestling with his friend Abdullah al-Khatib when the accident happened, something he kept to himself until 1989 out of fear that there would be problems between the families. Despite periods of being able to walk and move, he ultimately wound up confined to a wheelchair for many years of his life.
He participated in the demonstrations in 1956 against the tripartite attack (Britain, France, and Israel) on Egypt, where he discovered his abilities as a speaker and organizer. He finished his secondary studies in 1958 and found work as a teacher, despite his disabilities, and helped support his family, which he did until 1964 when he was accepted as a student at Ayn Shams University in Egypt. He chose to study English. Throughout this period in Gaza, he developed his skills as an orator and preacher, and worked as an imam at mosques.
Name: Ahmad Yasin (Yassin)
Birth: c. 1936, al-Jura, mandatory Palestine
Death: 2004, Gaza, Palestinian Authority
Family: Wife, Halima; eleven children
Education: High school graduate, schoolteacher of Arabic and Islamic studies; University courses in English at Ayn Shams University in Egypt in 1964
- 1958–1984: Teacher
- 1965: Serves a term in an Egyptian jail
- 1970s: Founder of al-Mujamma al-Islami, a Muslim charitable group
- 1987: Founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement
- 1983–1985, 1991–1997: Serves terms in Israeli jails, where he is released each time in a prisoner exchange
Yasin's time spent studying in Egypt, his relationship with the underground Muslim Brotherhood (an organization established in Egypt in 1928 that calls for a correct interpretation of Islam and application of this knowledge to one's daily life), and the time he spent in Egyptian jail, are subjects of dispute in the writings about him. He seems to have studied for only one year or part of one year at Ayn Shams University, and he was imprisoned by the Egyptian authorities around the time he was studying in Egypt, or upon his return. He was interrogated and held in solitary confinement for a month. Although accused of having a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, he was cleared and released some time around 1965 or 1966. Yasin described the prison experience as "deepening within me my hatred of oppression, and that the legality of any authority has be based in justice and in the right of a person to live a free life" (al Jazeera.net). It is said that he joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1955, but there is no evidence of that and his release from prison was said to be predicated on the fact that the interrogations revealed that he was not part of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was, however, interested in and perhaps closely studied the ideology and thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip in the 1967 War (along with the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula), Yasin increased his preaching activities in the al-Abbasi mosque, where he encouraged resistance to the occupation and dedicated himself to social causes by collecting donations and supplies for the families of those killed and imprisoned. While continuing his professional work as a schoolteacher of Arabic and Islamic studies, he also founded al-Mujamma al-Islami (Islamic League) in Gaza in the 1970s, a charitable religious organization that provided health and educational programs and eventually came to control all of the religious institutions in Gaza. At the same time, Yasin embraced the teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yasin and other sympathizers and members of the Muslim Brotherhood were in opposition to the PLO and they actively worked to combat the secular nature of the PLO's national liberation struggle. He developed a militant group in 1982 (one source names it al-Mujahidun al-Filastiniyyun, or "The Palestinian Warriors," whereas another dubs the group Majd al-Mujahidin, or "The Pride of the Faithful Warriors") with help of Ibrahim al-Muqadima. The group took an anti-PLO position and was largely ignored by the Israelis until they discovered an arms cache in 1983. As a result, the Israeli occupation authorities arrested Yasin and accused him of forming a military organization and illegal possession of weapons, and sentenced him to thirteen years in prison. He was released in a prisoner exchange in May 1985 between the Israeli authorities and Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Following demonstrations that began in December 1987 over the killing of Palestinian workers by an Israeli truck driver that set off the first intifada, Yasin and a group of Muslim Brotherhood activists and leaders formed an Islamic movement aimed at fighting Zionism and liberating Palestine. They called the movement Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), know popularly by the Arabic acronym Hamas (which means zeal in Arabic). The group issued their first leaflet in mid-December 1987, and the group's charter, or covenant, was penned in August 1988.
In August 1988 the Israeli authorities raided and searched Yasin's house and threatened to deport him to Lebanon as part of an attempt to intimidate him into ceasing his activities. He continued his work with Hamas and was active in the intifada. The Independent's obituary of Yasin states that "Hamas was not formally outlawed by the Israeli military authorities until 1989, fuelling the still commonly held belief among secular Arab nationalists that Israel and U.S. intelligence fostered the group as a useful counterweight to Arafat's PLO." In 1989 Yasin is said to have issued a call for the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers so that they (or their bodies) could be used in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, who were being detained in the thousands during the intifada. In addition, Hamas gained a reputation for ruthlessness, especially against fellow Palestinian Muslims suspected of collaborating with Israel. The Israeli authorities arrested Yasin and hundreds of other Hamas members in May 1989. In October 1991 Yasin was sentenced to life in prison plus fifteen years for inciting the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers, a charge he denied, although he admitted in court to being a founder of Hamas. During his time in prison, Yasin's health deteriorated. He lost all sight in his right eye and his sight in his left was weakened, and he suffered from hearing loss and respiratory problems. Two of his sons volunteered to serve his prison term with him in order to take care of him.
Yasin was released from prison again in October 1997 as a result of the botched Israeli assassination attempt of Hamas member khalid mash'al in Jordan. After Jordan released two Mossad intelligence agents who had try to kill Mash'al, Yasin was flown to Jordan for medical treatment and returned to Gaza a few days later to jubilant crowds of tens of thousands of Palestinians. He publicly stated at this time the importance of national unity and his support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the authority representing the Palestinian people. Authorities in Israel tried to assassinate Yasin in September 2003 by firing several missiles into his house from an F-16 fighter jet. However, Yasin was only slightly injured. Yet finally, on 22 March 2004, the Israelis killed him and nine others with missiles fired from a helicopter as he was coming out of a mosque from early morning prayers.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
According to a biographer, the lesson that Yasin took from the defeat of the Palestinians and Arabs in 1948 War and the nakba (Arabic: disaster; the disaster of the displacement of half of the Palestinian population) was that the Palestinians need to depend on themselves for strength, a lesson that resounded throughout his intellectual and political life. Yasin said, "the Arab armies that came to fight Israel took the weapons out of our hands and said that it was only appropriate to use the strength of the armies. They tied their destiny to ours with this act, so that when they were defeated, so were we. And during the fear inspired by and the massacres committed by the Zionist gangs, if we had had guns in our hands, we could have changed the course of events" (al Jazeera.net).
Yasin also took on social problems and issues that plagued the Palestinian community. In the 1970s the main focus of his group al-Mujamma al-Islami was to address the lack of health and educational services provided by the occupying Israeli authorities, although the group's religious focus also allowed it to take control of the religious institutions in Gaza. After his release from jail in 1985 he set up a group to curb drug dealing. With the organizations, Yasin and the Islamist activists were able to consolidate their control of religious organizations and to also keep tabs on their opponents through the social networks created. Much of the struggle at this period and up to the present has been against the PLO and the secular national authorities in a struggle to represent Palestinians.
With the founding of Hamas, Islamists entered the mainstream of the political and military arena in Palestine. Yasin was known as the spiritual leader and a key figure of the movement. Hamas was not part of the PLO. Rather, Hamas sees itself as an alternative and competitor to the PLO, although there has been talk recently about it joining the PLO. The members of Hamas drafted a charter or covenant in August 1988, calling themselves a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. They see the movement as both a religious and nationalist one:
Nationalism, from the point of view of the Islamic Resistance Movement, is part of the religious creed. […] If other nationalist movements are connected with materialistic, human or regional causes, nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement has all these elements as well as the more important elements that give it soul and life. It is connected to the source of spirit and the granter of life, hoisting in the sky of the homeland the heavenly banner that joins earth and heaven with a strong bond. (Hamas Covenant)
Early in December 1987, during the first days of the demonstrations and strikes that were to become the first intifada, Ahmad Yasin and a group of Muslim Brotherhood activists and leaders formed an Islamic movement aimed at fighting Zionism and liberating Palestine. They called the movement Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Islamic Resistance Movement), know popularly as Hamas. The group issued their first leaflet in mid-December 1987 and the group's charter, or covenant, was penned in August 1988. Initially, Hamas leaflets (leaflets were issued by all of the political factions) called for general strikes, demonstrations, a boycott of Israeli products, and attendance at Friday prayers plus performing an additional prayer for martyrs. Additionally, general resistance to the Israeli occupation forces was called for, such as throwing stones and attacking Israeli soldiers and settlers. It was not until 1994, after the intifada was over and the provisions of the Oslo Accord promising peace between Israelis and Palestinians were being implemented piecemeal, that Hamas began undertaking suicide bombings. Hamas is often criticized for being unwilling to concede to Israel's existence and being unwilling to negotiate with Israelis, although since running in the Palestinian Authority's Palestinian Legislative Council and winning control of the government in 2006, Hamas has made more conciliatory statements. Similar to the Jews who believe that the land of Israel is the land promised to them by God, Hamas believes that "the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day" (Hamas Covenant).
After his release from prison in 1997, and then again in 2000 and January 2004, Yasin proposed a truce with Israel if it would withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and remove all settlements. The proposal in January 2004 was made by Hamas official Abd al-Aziz Rantisi who offered a ten-year truce to Israel in return for complete Israeli withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967. At this time Yasin stated that Hamas could accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has repeatedly refused these offers and Hamas has had trouble making its military wing adhere to them as well, although there were relatively few violent attacks in 2004.
Yasin was in prison during the signing of the Declaration of Principles (Oslo Accords) in 1993, the establishment of the PA, and the period of hope and promise that followed it. After 1997 Yasin was placed under house arrest by the PA a number of times, resulting in anger on the Palestinian street and causing widespread and sometimes violent clashes between PA security forces and Hamas. By all accounts the PA was trying to prove its control over the situation as demanded of it by Israel and the United States. His return in 1997 was during the period of disillusionment and continued Israeli confiscation of land, building of settlements, and decreasing economic possibilities. As were many others, Yasin was against the Oslo Accords although not because, he said, he was against a negotiated settlement, but because the negotiated agreements did not bring about an independent Palestinian state.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Yasin toured Arab and Muslim countries in 1998 and collected millions of dollars in donations to aid the social services that Hamas provides, although the United States and Israel said that the money went to fund terrorism and the military wing of Hamas. Following his release in 1997, he captured world attention and became known worldwide for the first time. Unlike the PA and Fatah, which have been seen as corrupt and extravagant, Hamas, Yasin, and the other Hamas officials are seen by Palestinians as modest and honest, traits that contribute to the success of the movement and its rising popularity.
The assassination of Yasin provoked international condemnation from the United Nations (UN) General Secretary, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Arab League, and the African Union. Demonstrators filled the streets in the PA and in many other Arab and Muslim countries, and Palestinian president yasir arafat declared three days of mourning. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei called the killing "one of the biggest crimes that the Israeli government has committed" (Guardian, 22 March 2004). British foreign secretary Jack Straw condemned the killing ("All of us understand Israel's need to protect itself […] but it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing and we condemn it" [BBC News, 2004]), whereas the White House expressed that it was "deeply troubled" (BBC News, 2004) while stressing that Israel has the right to defend itself and that Yasin, according to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had been "personally involved in terrorism." A U.S. State Department spokesman said that the assassination did not help efforts to resume progress toward peace.
The Islamic movement in Palestine prior to the founding of Hamas has been described as more devoted to the revival of Islam than to undertaking actions against the occupation forces. Yasin was part of both of these periods. The Guardian's obituary of Yasin states that, prior to the 1987, Yasin is said to have believed that "the struggle was cultural, moral and educational; it was about combating secularism and the reform and re-Islamicisation of Palestinian society—a preparation for jihad, rather than jihad itself." Led by the Muslim Brotherhood splinter group Islamic Jihad in the early 1980s, the Islamists began armed struggle against the Israeli occupation. Yasin and the other senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine were close behind with this strategy, and with the founding of Hamas, formed a body that addressed the political realities and new forms of struggle against the occupation, and incorporated them into a Muslim ideological framework.
WE ARE FOR AN INDEPENDENT PALESTINIAN STATE ON ANY PART OF OUR STOLEN LAND
The difficult decision to make a truce with the Israelis grows out of the need to preserve Palestinian national unity and move the struggle to the arena of the Israeli enemy, who, in implementing the truce would have to do the following: withdraw from the occupied West Bank, stop settlements, stop building the racist separation wall which is devouring Palestinian land, and release political prisoners. […] We are for an independent Palestinian state on any part of our stolen land. But that does not affect our historic rights to Palestinian land, however long it takes, and whatever the strength and capabilities of the enemy. […] The Islamic movement in Palestine believes that it is not possible to participate in a Palestinian government while under occupation, without possessing freedom of intentionality or movement on this land. […] But as regards municipal elections, Hamas has announced that it is ready to participate. On the Legislative and Presidential fronts the decision will be made at that time after studying the situation and conditions of those elections.
YASIN, SHAYKH AHMAD. AL-BAYAN. INTERVIEW. AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://SAAID.NET/MKTARAT/FLASTEEN/022.HTM.
Yasin never admitted to encouraging this practice, but also never publicly called a halt to it. Notably, a strategic shift in Hamas's policy, after Yasin's death, took place when it decided to run for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) parliamentary elections in 2006. After a surprise victory in which they won the majority of the seats, they chose ismail haniyeh as the prime minister. The years 2006 and 2007 were difficult for Palestinians, because of the cutting off of funding to the PA government by the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Japan because of Hamas's presence in the government, and due to internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah that has led to hundreds of deaths.
Because of Yasin's physical limitations and illnesses later in life, he was seen as the spiritual leader of Hamas and its mastermind. In reality, because of the secretive nature of the organization due to constant threats of imprisonment and assassination, both the structure of the organization and the roles of different people are not clear. The Independent's obituary of Yasin read, "He owed much of his fame and popularity among Islamists in Palestine and elsewhere more to luck and the unintended consequences of violent Israeli policies than to his own political cunning."
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BBC News. Updated 22 March 2004. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk.
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Kristianasen, Wendy. "Challenge and Counterchallenge: Hamas's Response to Oslo." Journal of Palestine Studies 28, no. 3 (Spring 1999): 19-36.
"Obituary, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin." Independent (23 March 2004). Available from http://www.independent.co.uk.
Yasin, Ahmad. Al-Bayan. Interview. Available from http://saaid.net/mktarat/flasteen/022.htm.
Rochelle Anne Davis