The surprise release of Sheik Ahmed Yassin from jail Wednesday has further aggravated Israeli relations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who had sought the Hamas spiritual chief’s liberty for years without success.
But by freeing the ailing founder of the militant Islamic group, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has averted a blowup with King Hussein of Jordan, Israel’s closest Arab ally - even as his move threatens to raise tensions between Hussein and Arafat.
Yassin’s transfer to Jordan is perceived as strengthening the king’s hand in the region, while weakening Arafat at home in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Yassin is a 61-year-old quadriplegic, nearly deaf and suffering multiple other health problems. Nonetheless, he is a powerful opposition religious figure and his homecoming is expected to be a challenge for Arafat, whose popularity has dropped along with the prospects for peace with Israel.
Arafat publicly welcomed Yassin’s release and called for other political prisoners to be freed. But he condemned the sheik’s “expulsion” to Jordan, and his aides viewed the deal as a snub. They said Arafat was not told about Yassin’s release until after the fact, and was given no role that would allow him to claim any credit.
“The Palestinian authority had demanded the release of Sheik Yassin and all prisoners for a long time. Israel should have released him before,” said Arafat’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh. “He should have been released to Gaza.”
Hisham Abdel Razek, a leader of Arafat’s Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the official in charge of prisoner issues, added that the release did not help build confidence between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Netanyahu, instead of building confidence between himself and Arafat, prefers to build confidence between himself and King Hussein,” Razek said on Israel Radio.
Yassin’s release is widely believed to be part of a deal to compensate for a bungled Israeli undercover operation against a top Hamas political leader in the Jordanian capital of Amman a week ago - despite a Jordanian denial and Israeli refusal to comment.
Arafat has been under intense U.S. and Israeli pressure to crack down on Hamas since the group’s military wing launched multiple suicide bombings in Jerusalem’s central market July 30 and a downtown pedestrian mall Sept. 4. He has arrested scores of Hamas activists in the Palestinian-ruled territories and closed Islamic organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The United States welcomed the sheik’s release as “a humanitarian gesture” by Israel and said it hopes the action will improve the political climate and facilitate peace moves. But political observers in the region suggested that the release of Hamas’ spiritual leader will make it difficult for Arafat to continue his crackdown. When asked about this, Abu Rudeineh replied, “I do not really know what Israel or Jordan were thinking of when they reached that deal.”
He and other Palestinian officials referred to Yassin’s release as a deportation, but Israeli officials did not clarify whether Yassin had been officially deported or would be allowed to return to Gaza.
From his room at the King Hussein Medical Center in Amman, Yassin vowed to return to Gaza after treatment.
“I send my greetings to the entire Palestinian people. I want to inform them that I am coming to Gaza in the near future. I am getting treatment in Jordan,” he said in a phone linkup to a news conference in Gaza.
Hamas leaders also said Hussein had promised them Yassin would be sent back home after medical treatment.
Hussein has all but stated that a bizarre attack against Hamas spokesman Khalid Meshaal with some kind of chemical weapon or nerve gas outside an Amman office building a week ago was committed by two Israeli operatives carrying Canadian passports.
“This (release) was a quid pro quo,” said a Jordanian political analyst who asked not to be identified. “Israel releases Yassin in return for settling the issue. Maybe it is for the release of the two agents in custody or just for a commitment to find a way out of this.”
Israeli television, quoting sources in Jordan, reported that Hussein had threatened to sever diplomatic relations with Israel if Netanyahu did not cooperate.
Apparently to appease Netanyahu’s right wing, President Ezer Weizman granted amnesty to two Israeli prisoners sentenced to 10 years for throwing a hand grenade into Jerusalem’s Old City market in 1993 and killing a Palestinian. He shortened the terms of four others accused of crimes against Arabs but denied any connection to Yassin’s release.