February 02, 2002

CAIRO, Feb. 2 (AFP)--Following the first Palestinian suicide bombing by a woman, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Hamas militant group, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, has come out against women conducting suicide attacks as part of the anti-Israeli uprising.

"I'm saying that in this phase (of the uprising), the participation of women is not needed in martyr operations, like men," Yassin said in an interview with the London-based Asharq al-Awsat daily published on Saturday.

"We can't meet the growing demands of young men who wish to carry out martyr operations," the blind and ailing 65-year-old Muslim cleric was quoted as saying by the Arab-language paper.

However, he added that once the current 16-month old uprising, or intifada, enters its "decisive phase, everyone will participate without exception," and that "women form the second line of defence in the resistance to the occupation."

He did not define the uprising's "decisive phase."

Wafa Idris, 28, a former volunteer paramedic from the Al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah, West Bank, carried out the first Palestinian suicide bombing by a woman two Sundays ago in downtown Jerusalem.

She killed an 81-year-old Israeli and injured dozens of other people when she blew herself up in the attack, which was claimed by a radical offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's secular Fatah movement, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

"Martyr operation" is the term used by Palestinian extremist groups for suicide bombings. Suicide is frowned upon in Islam, as it is in Judaism and Christianity.

Yassin added that if a Hamas woman wanted to carry out an attack she "must be accompanied by a man," such as a relative under Islamic precepts, "if the operation requires an absence of more than a day and a night."

The comments by Yassin seem to downplay the possibility that Hamas, whose military wing has carried out most of the anti-Israeli attacks and suicide bombings, will start using women fighters.

The possibility has put Israeli security on edge, wrecking their profile of the typical suicide bomber as a young Palestinian man without a wife or children. Israeli female border police have reportedly begun more vigorous screenings of Palestinian women entering Israel.

Another Hamas leader told AFP on Monday that nothing prevented Palestinian women from fighting against Israel's military occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

"It is Muslim women's right to fight against occupation and no fatwa (religious decree) forbids them from joining the struggle," Sheikh Hassan Yusef said, adding that "the prophet Mohammad always defended women's right to jihad," or holy war.

Hamas is opposed to the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, and was one of the four Islamic militant groups singled out by President Bush in his State of the Union address as terrorist threats.

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