In 1948, along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians ethnically cleansed by the nascent state of Israel, a child named Ahmed Yassin and his family were forced to flee to the Gaza Strip, a part of Palestine which was to become synonymous with Palestinian refugees and the brunt of Zionist oppression, as well as resistance, in the coming decades. His birthplace and village of Al-Jura, like hundreds of other Palestinian towns and villages following the Nakba, was wiped off the map by Zionist forces.
When he was 12 years old, Yassin was playing with some friends on the seashore when he had an accident – its nature remains unclear – which broke some vertebrae in his neck. It left him in the state that came to define his image but not his legacy: a quadriplegic who was partially paralysed and who relied on a wheelchair and others for assistance for the rest of his life.
After completing secondary school education in Gaza, Yassin worked as a teacher of Arabic and Islamic Studies until 1964, when he applied to join the English Department at Ain Shams University in Cairo. He could only spend around a year there, however, with some reports stating that this was due to a lack of funds and deteriorating health, while others claimed that it was due to suppression by Egyptian authorities who detained him briefly in 1965 for his alleged activities with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Hamas takes root
Whatever the reason, the young Yassin was forced to return to Gaza – which was still under Egyptian control at the time – and, despite the circumstances of his return, was reported to have been deeply influenced by the Brotherhood and set about working for its Palestinian branch.
Yassin developed a reputation of being one of the Gaza Strip’s most respected preachers, giving frequent speeches after Friday prayers and gaining a following. He spent much of the 1970s carrying out extensive charity work through his organisation Mujama Al-Islamiya, building and facilitating services such as Islamic community centres, clinics, youth clubs and blood banks, as well as facilities providing day care, medical treatment and meals.
Although Tel Aviv initially favoured that charitable work, allegedly seeing it as an alternative to the more militant tactics of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) at the time, Israeli occupation forces arrested Yassin in 1984 for allegedly collecting and harbouring weapons for attacks against the occupation forces. The Israeli authorities subsequently sentenced him to 13 years in prison, but released him in 1985 as part of the Jibril Agreement, a prisoner exchange deal between the Israeli government and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), in which over 1,500 Palestinian prisoners were released in return for a few Israelis.
It was in 1987 – twenty years into Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and during the First Intifada – that Sheikh Yassin co-founded Hamas, the acronym of the Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement.
Struggle and legacy
The Hamas founder was arrested again in 1989 and sentenced to 40 years in prison, this time being charged with inciting violence and ordering the killing of an Israeli soldier. In prison, he was joined by two of his sons who volunteered to accompany their father to aid him due to his disabilities. They all spent eight years behind bars before they were released in 1997, facilitated by a deal agreed between Israel and King Hussein of Jordan after Mossad agents tried to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman and were captured by Jordanian security forces.
Those years in prison took their toll on the ailing Yassin, resulting in the further deterioration of his health, the loss of vision in his right eye, some hearing loss, and the development of respiratory diseases.
Israel had no intention of letting the man who had become the spiritual leader of Hamas remain active, though, and in the coming years would plan to eliminate him and his influence. In the early 2000s, the Israeli government under then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon started to call openly for Yassin’s assassination. On 6 September 2003, an Israeli F-16 fighter fired missiles at a building in Gaza City where he happened to be, but only succeeded in wounding the sheikh.
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The Israelis finally succeeded in assassinating him – something not hard to do, as Yassin reportedly took no effort to hide or change his daily schedule – on 22 March 2004, along with nine other people, when helicopters targeted him as he left a mosque after dawn prayers. The killing was condemned worldwide, both by supporters of Hamas, as well as by its critics who maintained that the move was a strategic mistake for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian factions.
Nineteen years after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and approximately 85 years after his birth, he remains a contentious figure, condemned by Hamas’s opponents as a “terrorist” leader responsible for the deaths of Israeli soldiers and civilians. If he had not been stopped, they argue, he would have ordered many more attacks.
His supporters and those who were close to him, however, praise Yassin as having been a persevering and ascetic leader who, despite his lifelong paralysis, raised eleven children and established a legitimate resistance movement that continues to carry out operations against Israel’s occupation to this day. They also cite him as a figure of integrity who stands in stark contrast to the corruption of the current Palestinian Authority (PA), which is condemned for its security coordination with the Israeli occupation, having abandoned its militant roots in the PLO in order to pursue the so-called “peace process”.
Whatever one’s opinion of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, there is no doubt that his legacy in Hamas is more relevant today than ever before. Following the operation against Israel by the movement’s military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, on 7 October, the far-right Israeli government is seemingly set on the destruction of Hamas, both as a governing force in Gaza and the West Bank, and as an entity.
The movement as we know it may be in its final months; or it may succeed in pushing back the Israeli offensive; or its leadership may be forced to leave the Gaza Strip and nurture its recovery and survival in exile. Whatever Hamas’s fate, many will continue to praise it for resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine and carrying on — unlike the PA — with the legitimate armed struggle as a direct result of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s vision.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.