Israel Releases Ailing Spiritual Leader of Militant Group Hamas From Jail in Response To
Israel Releases Ailing Spiritual Leader of Militant Group Hamas From Jail in Response To Appeal From Jordan’s King HusseinBy NICOLAS B. TATRO
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to an appeal from Jordan’s King Hussein, today freed the ailing spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Sheik Ahmed Yassin was flown into exile in Amman on a Jordanian helicopter after King Hussein urged in a speech Tuesday night that Israel free Yassin.
Israeli television quoted Palestinian sources as saying the release of Yassin was part of a deal to win the freedom of two Israeli agents, who were jailed in Amman for an attack on a Hamas leader. The two are Canadian citizens.
Shai Bazak, Netanyahu’s spokesman, declined comment.
The release appeared to be designed in part to appease King Hussein. The daily Yediot Ahronot reported today that Hussein made an angry call to Netanyahu protesting the attack last week on Khalid Mashaal, the Hamas leader in Amman.
The newspaper said the Jordanian monarch asked what type of gas was used in the attack on Mashaal, who is in a Jordanian hospital, so that doctors can treat him.
After his arrival in Amman, Yassin was visited in a hospital by King Hussein, officials in Jordan said.
Israeli security forces increased the state of alert in major Israeli cities amid new warnings of possible terror attacks.
Abdel-Aziz Rantisi, a spokesman for Hamas, protested the exile of Yassin, saying Israel had only released him because he was near death and feared the Palestinian reaction if he died in an Israeli prison.
The sheik’s son, Abdel-Ghani Yassin, said, ``we are happy our father is out of prison. But I think this decision comes after his health has badly deteriorated, and the Israelis don’t want to take responsibity for that.″
Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian official close to Yasser Arafat, said the release was positive. ``It’s a step in the direction of releasing all Palestinian prisoners,″ said Asfour. ``Their continued stay in prison does not help Israel’s interests.″
Palestinians estimate some 5,000 activists are still in Israeli jails.
Yassin, 61, was serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for urging his followers to kill Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israeli authorities.
In prison, Yassin moderated his positions, calling on his followers to end terrorist bombings in Israel and assisting in the return of the body of an Israeli soldier killed by Hamas.
Hamas claimed responsbility in leaflets for suicide-bomb attacks in recent weeks at an outdoor market and a pedestrian mall `in Jerusalem that claimed 25 lives, including those of the five suicide attackers.
The army said that Yassin was released from jail and sent to Jordan after a request from King Hussein, who had appealed for Israel to take ``positive steps which will help the peace process.″ Hussein made the appeal in a speech Tuesday night.
An army statement said he had been freed because of his deteriorating physical condition, an army announcement said. Yassin is paralyzed in all four limbs, confined to his wheelchair and suffers from chronic breathing problems, internal infections, and hearing loss.
Rantisi, the Hamas spokesman, said Israel had not made a goodwill gesture to Palestinians.
``Netanyahu took this step to get rid of him because he was afraid he would die in prison and feared the reaction,″ said Rantisi, adding Netanyahu ``will be responsible″ for the fate of Yassin.
Speaking from his home in the Gaza Strip, Rantisi told The Associated Press that Yassin was sent into exile against his will. He said the Hamas leader had previously rejected offers to be set free in exchange for his agreement to go abroad.
A crackdown on Hamas by Arafat’s police set the stage for an announcement in New York this week that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would resume in October.
Palestinian police arrested dozens of Hamas members and closed down institutions that raise money and recruit activists - steps Israel demanded after bombings on July 30 and Sept. 4 in Jerusalem.
A leaflet distributed Tuesday and signed on behalf of Palestinian political prisoners urged the military wing of Hamas to carry out more attacks ``to secure our release.″
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright coaxed a promise from Netanyahu to consider a ``time-out″ in settlement construction.
But Netanyahu said Tuesday that until the sides agreed on what the ``time-out″ meant, he saw no reason to stop building.
The State Department said that it preferred that the time-out take effect immediately.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Hanan Ashrawi said Tuesday that a freeze on settlements was the ``bottom line as far as all Palestinians are concerned.″
Palestinians maintain that by expanding Jewish settlements Israel is violating promises to negotiate about the future of West Bank territory.