Hamas Leader Surfaced Only to Worship

Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin knew very well that Israel was out to get him. As recently as last week there were the detailed warnings issued by the security cabinet, as well as last September's failed attempt on his life.

Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin knew very well that Israel was out to get him. As recently as last week there were the detailed warnings issued by the security cabinet, as well as last September's failed attempt on his life. The leaks last week specifically named him as a target for assassination and the sheikh indeed lowered his profile somewhat, reducing his public appearances.

He went underground, but there was one thing he found it difficult not to do as an Orthodox Muslim: attend morning prayers at the mosque in the Sabra neighborhood of Gaza, about 250 meters away from his home. He appeared for prayers, and was killed as he came out.

Senior officers who were in on the secret of the plan to kill him told Haaretz yesterday that the defense establishment has long had much information about Yassin's movements, including his routine attendance at morning prayers, and the idea of striking him there came up last summer.

The sheikh believed that the fact he chose one of three different routes to the mosque and home gave him immunity from attack. Close intelligence surveillance by the IDF and Shin Bet, relying on no fewer than 15 observation mechanisms (as opposed to only three during an attempt on his life three years ago) - enabled the successful strike yesterday morning.

Since last Saturday, Yassin had been closely monitored by Israeli intelligence. Early yesterday morning, when information came in that he planned to be at the morning prayers, the decision to act was taken.

Lat summer, a rare agreement between Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon and Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter was reached on a new way to strike at Hamas. The security services would target the leadership for assassination instead of only the "ticking bombs."

Ismail Abu Shanab was killed, Mahmoud al-Zahar was wounded, and Yassin and a number of other Hamas leaders escaped a separate attempt. Since then, the assassination attempts have been focused on military leaders in the organization.

Last Monday, upon his return from the U.S. following the Ashdod attack, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz convened the security establishment, which agreed to recommend to the political echelon that the assassinations resume, starting with Yassin. At the same time, a series of nighttime raids in Gaza were also approved, under the code name "Serialized Story."

The proposal for the assassination was approved last Tuesday in the security cabinet. Its two main proponents were Mofaz and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with the prime minister wanting to make sure the ministers shared responsibility for the decision. According to a senior government source, the ministers were told of Yassin's direct responsibility for sending suicide bombers, and special emphasis was made of his approval for a suicide bombing by a woman with children at Erez junction, killing four Israelis earlier this year.

There was a little dispute between security chiefs. Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter had reservations about the proposed assassination - though only about the method chosen, apparently preferring an attack that wold take out more leaders than Yassin. The other security experts - Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, Director of Military Intelligence Major General Aharon Ze'evi, and National Security chief Giora Eiland (who first raised the idea of an assassination campaign against Hamas leaders in late December 2002, when he was head of planning for the General Staff), sided with the plan proposed by Mofaz and Sharon.

Likud ministers and National Union minister Avigdor Lieberman favored the army plan. Shinui ministers Avraham Poraz and Yosef Lapid opposed it. Poraz explained yesterday that he believed the assassination of Yassin would lead to an escalation, would not eliminate Hamas, and only increase motivation for revenge.

Throughout the following days, the operation was approved a number of times but then canceled out of concern that innocents would be hurt.

On Sunday, ministers noticed Mofaz get up from his seat, go around the table, and hand Sharon a note. Sharon nodded, Mofaz wrote "approved" on the note - and in retrospect, that became the green light for yesterday morning's operation.

Sharon went home to his Negev estate, where he followed the operation by phone.

Military sources said yesterday that as far as the army is concerned, the Serialized Story continues. In other words, more assassinations of other senior officials in Hamas can be expected.