Hamas and Hezbollah yesterday vowed to avenge Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's assassination, after the Hamas spiritual leader was killed in a missile strike by Israeli gunships in Gaza.
Hamas' military wing threatened to "cut off" the head of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and take revenge on Israelis inside and outside the territories, while Hezbollah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said Israel would pay the highest price yet for Yassin's assassination. "Sharon has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head," Hamas leaders vowed. The Palestinian Authority declared three days of mourning.
"Today Ariel Sharon ordered the killing of hundreds of Zionists in every street, city and centimeter of the occupied lands," the statement by the Hamas military wing said.
For the first time in its history, Hamas threatened the United States directly. "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without the consent of the terrorist American administration, and it must bear responsibility for this crime," the statement said.
"All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation for this crime," the statement said.
The news of Yassin's assassination spread swiftly in Gaza, through loudspeakers and the local and international news media. Thousands gathered outside Shifa Hospital, where Yassin's body was taken, and hundreds of thousands thronged into the streets, many of them with tears in their eyes. Soon the streets were filled with cries for revenge. Gunmen fired into the air and militants threw dozens of pipe-bombs to express their outrage.
An estimated 150,000 people, including militants from all the organizations in the Gaza Strip, marched in the funeral procession through Gaza City's main street to Omari Mosque, where the leaders of Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad gathered to mourn Yassin.
Top Hamas official Abdel Aziz Rantisi said, "Yassin is a man in a nation, and a nation in a man. And the retaliation of this nation will be the size of this man. You will see deeds not words."
Calling the assassination a cowardly act, Rantisi told the masses that, "the Zionists only managed to kill the sheikh when he was leaving the mosque after finishing his prayer. No act of revenge would suffice to avenge Yassin's death. The Israeli act is an attempt to kill the right of return, the holy places and the Palestinian cause. A wave of attacks will flood the country and those who killed Yassin will be safe only when they leave Palestine."
After the eulogies, the procession continued to the cemetery in the Sheikh Radwan Quarter, where Yassin and the others who were killed in the attack were buried.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat issued an official statement describing the assassination as a "heinous crime." "We emphasize that this cowardly act against the sheikh will strengthen the national unity among all the Palestinian factions," he said. Yesterday evening Arafat received mourners for many hours during an official ceremony at his headquarters in the Muqata, in Ramallah.
Palestinian Authority officials condemned the attack, and the PA declared three days of mourning. "This is a crazy and very dangerous act. It opens the door wide to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act," said Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.
"Assassinations, incursions, walls, will not produce peace and security, on the contrary, it will just add fuel to the fire," said Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat.
"The Zionists will discover soon that they have committed a very big folly, to add to their series of previous follies," Nasrallah said in a live appearance on the group's al-Manar TV.
"Words cannot describe the emotion of anger and hate inside our hearts," said Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh, a close associate of Yassin in Gaza.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group connected to Arafat's Fatah faction, declared war on Israelis in response to the assassination. "War, war, war on the sons of Zion. An eye for an eye. There will be a response within hours, God willing," the group said.
Mass demonstrations were held throughout the territories yesterday protesting Yassin's assassination. At least three Palestinians, a 13-year old youth, a radio reporter and a gunman, were killed in clashes with IDF troops.