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S P E C I A L Struggle for Peace

Freed Hamas leader back in Gaza

Sheik speaks of peace, resistance

October 6, 1997
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EDT (1611 GMT)
Yassin

In this story:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (CNN) -- Thousands of Palestinians rejoiced on Monday as the founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic fundamentalist movement known as Hamas returned to Gaza after more than eight years in an Israeli prison.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin flew out of Amman on his way home to the Gaza Strip in a three-way prisoner swap brokered by Jordan's King Hussein.

Yassin arrives at the rally
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As part of the deal, Jordan released two Israelis jailed in a botched assassination attempt in Amman on another Hamas leader. Israeli security officials said the two -- reported to be agents from Mossad, the Israeli secret service -- landed Monday afternoon at an undisclosed airfield in Israel.

Israel also agreed to free 22 Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners and fly them to Jordan.

The ailing 61-year-old Yassin was taken from his wheelchair and put on a stretcher for the half-hour flight to Gaza aboard one of Hussein's helicopters. Two Jordanian military helicopters flew escort.

Still defiant

supporters

At a news conference before his departure from Amman, Yassin called on the world to help the Palestinians realize their dream of an independent homeland.

But, he warned, if peaceful means fail, the Palestinians will continue to resist Israeli occupation.

Yassin spoke to reporters outside the King Hussein Medical Center, where he had undergone treatment for an eye problem after his release by Israel five days ago. He was assisted by an aide who translated questions posed in English and repeated answers whispered by the sheik.

"We are peace seekers," Yassin said. "We love peace. And we call on them (Israel) to maintain peace with us and to help us in order to restore our right by means of peace."

But, "if this means is not available, we will never accept the occupation to remain on our shoulders," he said.

Yassin seemed to dismiss reports that Hamas offered Israel a 10-year moratorium on suicide attacks.

"Arafat cannot be pleased by this overwhelming welcome,"
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Under the offer, sources told CNN, Hamas would be made a partner in the negotiations on the future of the region.

Militants within Hamas have carried out more than a dozen bombings in Israel since 1994.

"The cease-fire cannot be obtained until the occupation is over," Yassin said. The sheik wore a dark blue robe with a white scarf covering the top of his head. His left eye was red and watery.

Celebration in Gaza

Yassin's wife, Halima, and Soha, the wife of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, walked hand in hand to the helicopter as it landed at Arafat's Gaza headquarters, where Hamas and Palestinian Authority officials were on hand.

Arafat was not present for the welcome. He was holding meetings in the West Bank in preparation for new Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

U.S. Mideast peace negotiator Dennis Ross was to arrive in the region on Monday to preside over a resumption of the talks, which were suspended in March after Israel started building homes for Jews in a disputed area of Jerusalem.

Yassin, in a wheelchair, saluted those present as women made ululating cries of joy. An ambulance waited to take him to a Gaza City stadium where over 15,000 Palestinians were in attendance for a rally to celebrate his return.

The sheik served eight years of a life sentence for ordering the killing of Palestinians collaborating with Israel.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers and Correspondent Jerrold Kessel contributed to this report.



Struggle For Peace
 
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