Ahmed Yassin was born in either 1937 or 1938 to a middle-class farming family in Ashkelon, a coastal town in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. After the creation of Israel in 1948, Yassin and his family lived as refugees in the Gaza Strip. When Yassin was 12, he was paralyzed in a wrestling accident that rendered him a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic for the remainder of his life. In his early 20s he married a young woman named Halima, with whom he went on to have 11 children.
While attending Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a young Yassin joined the Muslim Brotherhood and embraced its goal of worldwide Islamic supremacism. According to Zaki Chehab, author of Inside Hamas, Yassin, “due to his deteriorating health,” was unable to complete his studies at the University and “was forced to be educated at home where he read widely, particularly on philosophical matters and on religion, politics, sociology, and economics.” Over time, Yassin developed a reputation as one of Gaza’s more most skilled orators and began delivering weekly Friday sermons that drew consistently large crowds. In about 1960, he found work as an Arabic-language teacher in a Gazan elementary school.
In the 1960s the Gaza Strip, where Yassin resided, was under the control of Egypt. In 1965 he was arrested, along with many other Muslim Brotherhood members, on suspicion of having participated in an (unsuccessful) attempt to topple the government of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Released after spending 45 days in jail, Yassin at that point resumed his work as a teacher.
In 1973 Yassin founded an Islamic Centre that served as an umbrella for all of Gaza’s religious groups. Six years later, he established an entity called the Islamic Organization, which dealt mostly with social welfare issues. Over time, Yassin became increasingly militant in his desire to destroy Israel. Nonetheless, he advised that an all-out jihad against the Jewish state should be postponed until after a period of cultural and educational “struggle” had laid the necessary groundwork for such an undertaking.
In 1984 Israeli authorities arrested Yassin and sentenced him to 13 years in jail for illegally stockpiling arms and explosives in a mosque, establishing a military organization, and openly advocating the annihilation of Israel. But in May of the following year, Yassin was released in a prisoner-exchange agreement between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
In 1985-86, the Muslim Brotherhood initiated a policy of resistance via civil disturbance under various names such as The Armed Struggle Movement, The Steadfast on the Land of al-Isra’, and The Islamic Resistance Movement (a.k.a. Hamas). Yassin was a key player in this effort. Then, during the First Palestinian Intifada which was launched in 1987, Yassin, along with Abdel Aziz-Rantisi and six other leading Brotherhood members, blended his Islamic Organization with the Brotherhood movement and formally settled on the name “Hamas.” Although Yassin was not a religious authority, Gazans began to refer to him with the honorary title “Sheikh” because of his status as the leader of this popular upstart organization.
In early 1989 Yassin ordered Hamas operatives to kidnap Israeli soldiers inside the Jewish state, murder them, and bury their bodies in a manner that would allow them to be exhumed at a later date and used as bargaining chips in negotiated exchanges for living Hamas members in Israeli jails. After Hamas carried out two such killings on February 16, 1989, Israeli authorities arrested and tried Yassin and sentenced him to two life terms in prison. During his time behind bars, Yassin’s importance as an icon of Palestinian resistance grew dramatically.
In October 1997 Yassin was released—on the condition that he refrain from ordering any future terrorist attacks against Israel—in a prisoner-exchange deal arranged by King Hussein of Jordan. But as soon as he regained his freedom, Yassin immediately began exhorting young people to become “martyrs” for the Palestinian cause.
Calling openly for “jihad and resistance,” and declaring unequivocally that Israel “must disappear from the map,” Yassin was a fervent foe of what he termed “the so-called peace path” which Yasser Arafat‘s Palestinian Authority (PA) was exploring in negotiations with the Jewish state. The land upon which Israel stood, Yassin insisted, was “consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” As a result of these differing perspectives on the peace process, the PA repeatedly placed Yassin under house arrest for security purposes.
In January 2003 Yassin proclaimed that “jihad is the obligation of all Muslims, both men and women,” and he promised that “resistance will escalate against the Zionist enemy until they leave our land.” Dozens of Hamas attacks took place during the ensuing months, including an August 19th suicide bombing that killed 23 Israeli Jews aboard a crowded bus in Jerusalem. Less than three weeks later—on September 6—an Israeli Air Force F-16 dropped a 550-pound bomb onto a Gaza City building where Yassin was staying, but he suffered only a light wound to his hand. In the aftermath of that event, a defiant Yassin promised that Hamas would teach Israel an “unforgettable lesson” and said: “Days will prove that the assassination policy will not finish the Hamas. Hamas leaders wish to be martyrs and are not scared of death. Jihad will continue and the resistance will continue until we have victory, or we will be martyrs.”
On January 16, 2004, Israeli deputy defense minister Zeev Boim announced that Yassin was “marked for death” and vowed to “eliminate him.” Yassin responded: “We do not fear death threats. We are seekers of martyrdom.” Two months later, on March 22, while Yassin was being wheeled out of prayers at a Gaza City mosque, three Hellfire missiles from Israeli helicopter gun ships struck his car and the vehicles carrying his bodyguards. Yassin died instantly, along with seven others.
Soon after Yassin’s death, the PA condemned the killing as “a crime” and “a cowardly act” that which “shows that Israel has chosen the path of more violence and further escalation.” Yasser Arafat declared three days of “official mourning” and praised Yassin as a “martyr” who was now in “heaven.” Thousands of Palestinian protesters marched and chanted in the streets of Gaza City, burning tires, firing weapons into the air, and pledging revenge against Israel. And the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah movement, vowed to wage war against the Jewish state.
Yassin’s deputy, Abdel Aziz-Rantisi, succeeded Yassin as Hamas’s leader.
In the 2007 Holy Land Foundation (HLF) trial that looked into evidence of that organization’s fundraising activities on behalf of Hamas, the U.S. government named Yassin as one of approximately 300 “unindicted co-conspirators” and “joint venturers” who had allied themselves with HLF. Also on the list were such notables as Omar Ahmad, Abdurahman Alamoudi, Yousef al-Qaradawi, Abdallah Azzam, Jamal Badawi, Mohammad Jaghlit, Mousa Abu Marzook, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Further, the list included groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Hamas, INFOCOM, the Islamic Association for Palestine, the Islamic Society of North America, the Muslim Arab Youth Association, the North American Islamic Trust, and the United Association for Studies and Research.
Further Reading: “Ahmed Yassin” (Jewish Virtual Library, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, BBC News; Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad [by Matthew Levitt, pp. 34-37]); “The Life & Death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin” (by Ahmad Rashad, 3-29-2004); “Hamas Founder Targeted in Gaza Airstrike” (CNN, 9-6-2003); “Leader of Hamas Killed by Missile in Israeli Strike” (NY Times, 3-22-2004); “Palestinians Mourn Yassin, Vow Revenge Against Israelis” (Baltimore Sun, 3-23-2004).