The spiritual leader of Hamas returned to a tumultuous homecoming in the Gaza Strip Monday after being freed by Israel in exchange for two Mossad agents captured in a bungled assassination attempt in Jordan.
The swap of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and the Israeli agents was worked out in nearly two weeks of secret talks between Israel and Jordan. The exchange deeply embarrassed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because it contradicts his credo of being tough on terrorism.
Yassin, the founder of the radical Palestinian Hamas movement, was released from Israel’s Ayalon prison five days ago and flown to Jordan for medical treatment. Yassin had served eight years of a life sentence for ordering the killing of Palestinians collaborating with Israel.
By agreeing to Yassin’s release, Netanyahu now has much less leverage in demanding that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrest large numbers of Hamas activists to prevent terror attacks in Israel. Hamas has carried out more than a dozen suicide bombings in Israel since 1994.
Netanyahu, speaking to reporters this evening, said the government had decided to set up a committee to investigate the failed assassination attempt.
But, he said, “We have to continue to strike out at terror relentlessly. … We expect that any peace loving country will understand the need to fight terror and cooperate with us in the fight against terror.”
Netanyahu said the committee would be made up of Nahum Admoni, a former head of Mossad; Rafi Peled, a former police chief; and Yossi Ciechanover, a former legal adviser to the Defense Ministry.
As part of Monday’s exchange, Israel also freed at least 19 Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners who returned to their homes Monday.
A Jordanian military helicopter carrying Yassin, a 61-year-old quadriplegic, touched down in Gaza City this afternoon. Yassin was taken out in a wheelchair, moved into an ambulance and driven to a sports stadium, where he called for Palestinian unity in a speech to thousands of supporters.
“There must be no divisions among the Palestinian people,” Yassin whispered to an aide who repeated the words. The supporters, many of whom had waited in the sun for hours, cheered, whistled and chanted “Allahu Akbar,” or God is great.
Arafat did not welcome Yassin to Gaza, choosing instead to hold routine meetings in the West Bank. Yassin, the founder of Hamas, which opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, is Arafat’s biggest political rival, and his presence in Gaza will strengthen Hamas further.