Israel Frees the Ailing Founder of the Islamic Militant Group Hamas From PrisonBy NICOLAS B
Israel Frees the Ailing Founder of the Islamic Militant Group Hamas From PrisonBy NICOLAS B. TATRO
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israel freed the ailing founder of the Islamic militant group Hamas from prison today and sent him to Jordan in a reported deal to win the freedom of two Israeli agents held in Amman.
The release of Sheik Ahmed Yassin came a day after Jordan’s King Hussein urged Israel to free the quadriplegic 61-year-old Hamas leader who had served eight years of a life term.
Israel Radio said Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan visited Israel secretly on Sunday and closed the deal under which Yassin was freed in exchange for two alleged agents of Israel’s Mossad secret service. The two are being held by Jordan in the attempted assassination last week of another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Amman.
Israeli government spokesman Moshe Fogel refused comment on Yassin’s release and the reported swap. Yassin’s release apparently was timed to coincide with the start of the Jewish New Year, a three-day holiday in Israel during which there would be little public reaction, including criticism from hardliners.
Hamas leaders, who initially condemned Yassin’s exile to Jordan, welcomed the move today after being assured by Hussein that Yassin was free to return to his Gaza home.
Speaking to reporters in Gaza by phone from Amman, Yassin said: ``We salute you and all the Palestinian people in the occupied land and, God willing, we will meet soon on our soil.″ The call took place during a Hamas news conference in Gaza City.
A Hamas political leader in Amman, Mousa Abu Marzook, said the group would continue its attacks on Israel. ``We will resist occupation until it is removed,″ Abu Marzook, who was at Yassin’s bedside, told the Gaza news conference by phone. ``If there is no occupation, there is no resistance.″
Abu Marzook was deported from the United States to Jordan earlier this year after Israel dropped a request to try him for alleged involvement in plotting terror attacks in Israel.
Hamas, responsible for more than a dozen suicide bombings in Israel since 1994, had frequently cited Yassin’s detention as one of the reasons for the attacks.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat today welcomed Yassin’s release. ``God willing, it will be the beginning of the release of all prisoners who are still in Israeli and Zionist prisons, who are still suffering there,″ Arafat said. About 3,000 Palestinian security prisoners remain in Israeli jails.
White House press secretary Mike McCurry said the Clinton administration welcomed ``the humanitarian gesture″ and hoped it would ``improve the climate for further discussions related to the peace process.″
Yassin was jailed by Israel in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison for ordering the murders of Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. In prison, Yassin had 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.
Before daybreak, Yassin was rolled out of Israel’s Ayalon Prison in a wheelchair, his body wrapped in blankets, and was put aboard a Jordanian helicopter that took him to Amman.
In the Jordanian capital, he was carried on a stretcher into the King Hussein Medical Center, where the monarch spoke and joked with the Hamas leader.
Israel Radio, quoting Palestinian sources, said Yassin was released as part of a deal under which Jordan would release the two alleged Mossad agents involved in the failed attempt on Mashaal’s life last week. The two carry Canadian passports, but have refused to seek the help of the Canadian Embassy in Amman.
However, a Jordanian Cabinet official said today that the two suspects would be questioned by Jordanian prosecutors next week.
Two men attacked Mashaal last week as he entered his office, injecting him in the ear with a toxic substance, Hamas officials said. Mashaal was hospitalized with breathing problems, which doctors attributed to the poison. King Hussein said Tuesday he arranged for an antidote to be brought to Mashaal.
Diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Hussein had asked President Clinton to intervene with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help secure treatment for the poison.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reported today that Hussein made an angry phone call to Netanyahu to protest the attack and asked him what type of poison was used so doctors could treat it.
In the Gaza news conference, Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi referred to a swap for Yassin’s release.
Rantisi urged Jordan not to release the alleged Israeli agents. ``We are not interested in such a deal,″ Rantisi said. ``We have to fight Zionist terrorism by all means.″
With the exact conditions of Yassin’s release still unclear, especially whether Israel will permit him to return home, members of the Palestinian Authority reacted angrily.
Cabinet secretary general Ahmed Abdel Rahman said Arafat’s government considered Yassin deported, and demanded that he be allowed to return home.
Yassin’s wife, Halima, was crying in her Gaza City home today, holding a photograph of her husband.
``This ... is an order of separation between him and his family,″ said Mrs. Yassin, her hair covered by a white scarf in Islamic tradition.
The Israeli army said that Yassin was released from jail after a request from Hussein, and because of his deteriorating physical condition. Besides being confined to a wheelchair, Yassin suffers chronic breathing problems, internal infections and hearing loss.
Yassin’s release comes at a time when the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on Hamas in response to two suicide-bombings in Jerusalem on July 30 and Sept. 4 in which 25 people were killed, including five assailants. Hamas has claimed responsibility.