Yassin was an imposing figure

/ Source: NBC News

An audience with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas who was killed on Monday morning, was an unnerving experience.

Not because of the journey to his safehouse -- one had to travel in an off-road vehicle through the dusty backstreets of Gaza City, littered with posters of Palestinian martyrs, and murals of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and beheaded Israeli tank commanders.

Nor was it the men with AK-47s and bloodshot eyes that met and frisked us before being led into the house.

It wasn't even the paradoxical appearance of the most powerful man in Gaza who was then wheeled in -- so shriveled in his wheelchair as to seem half a person. Quadriplegic, almost blind, looking two decades older than the 66 he claimed to be, his voice was so weak and highly pitched as to come from an even tinier human inside his body.

No, what made it uncomfortable was the thought that if I could find the man, then certainly the Israelis, with the most sophisticated surveillance technology in the world, could do the same. 

Outside the nondescript house, looking nervously to the skies and listening for sound of a helicopter, I asked our local Palestinian fixer, Wagi Abu Zreifa, if the Israelis could ever assassinate the man who founded the Hamas organization responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians.

"Of course, they could do it any time they like," Wagi said.  "But they would never dare. They know the region would go up in flames if they did."

Highly revered figure
Inside the house, the sheik was treated with the utmost respect by all Palestinian visitors.

Hamas has the support of the majority of people in Gaza, and the man who founded it in a mosque in Gaza City in 1987 had absolute power within the organization.

I asked him if he would ever bow to the pressure at the time from the Palestinian Authority to call off the suicide bombers. The tiny man's eyes seemed to move upwards, as would a lion asked by a rabbit to stop eating meat. Only the complete withdrawal of Israelis from Palestinian territories would bring that, he said.

"So you will continue with the suicide attacks?" I asked.

"As long as the occupation exists, we will continue," came the reply.  There was not a hint of indecision.

For the May, 2002,interview, I was given 20 minutes with the sheik, before his aides interrupted to tell me  the spiritual leader was feeling tired.

One last question, I said.

"Are you not concerned for your safety given that there are Israeli tanks just 10 miles from where we are sitting?"

"Safety is not from the tanks, it is from God," Yassin replied. "The one who has the faith will never be afraid of tanks or airplanes."