GAZA, March 22 (UPI) -- Hundreds of thousands of angry Palestinians participated in the biggest-ever funeral in Gaza City as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and eight other Palestinians killed in an Israeli missile attack were buried Monday.
The assassination in Gaza of Sheikh Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, also promises to unleash a new wave of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Several Palestinian militant groups -- Hamas' armed wing, the Izeldine Al Qassam Brigades, Saraya Al Quds, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, and Fatah -- have called for revenge attacks against Israel.
Two Israeli Apache helicopters flew over Gaza City before dawn and waited for Yassin, the quadriplegic 68-year-old Hamas leader, who was praying in the Al Mujama' Mosque in the Sabra neighborhood, not far from his home.
"He stayed in the mosque for about half an hour, and as soon as his three bodyguards pushed his wheelchair outside the mosque and headed toward his home, the helicopters began to fire missiles at him and his bodyguards," said a nearby resident.
Mohamed Ibrahim, a 25-year-old resident of Sabra, said that despite being wanted by the Israelis, Yassin went to this mosque five times every day. He said Yassin was always smiling and had said, "I welcome death ... I am not afraid."
The witness said he had seen blood and part of the wheelchair from Yassin's gray beard flying in the air after three missiles were fired from the helicopters. The three bodyguards and five bystanders were killed in the attack, and 12 people were wounded, including Yassin's two sons.
Following the attack residents of the Gaza Strip were in shock. Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters and militants rushed to the hospital to confirm that Yassin had truly been killed.
"I was shocked. I didn't believe it, I never thought that Israel would assassinate Sheikh Yassin one day," said Salem Hamdan, a witness at the Shiffa Hospital where Yassin's body was taken.
Hamdan said that the assassination of Yassin would be the beginning of a third Palestinian intifada, adding, "Hamas as well as other militants will react and carry out revenge attacks against Israel.
"Israel, after the (Palestinian) retaliatory attacks for Yassin's assassination, will not keep quiet and it will respond to future attacks, then militants will respond, and this will be endless," said Hamdan.
Angry crowds gathered at Shiffa hospital, waving green Hamas flags and pictures of Yassin while promising revenge and firing guns into the air.
Mourners carried the bodies, wrapped in green Hamas flags, on their shoulders, followed by thousands of militants carrying rifles and rocket launchers and firing them into the air.
Crowds of mourners walked through Gaza City's main street of Omer El Mukhtar, toward Yassin's neighborhood and the homes of those killed in the air strike.
After allowing families to see their loved ones one last time, the crowds headed to the Al Omari Mosque in the center of Gaza for a brief prayer service before taking them to different cemeteries.
Abu Qusai, commander of the Al Aqsa Brigade in the Gaza Strip, said that the death of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be equivalent to that of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
"I tell Sharon and (Israeli Defense Minister Shaul) Mofaz, from now on, every Israeli will be a target for the militants," said Abu Qusai.
Abdel Aziz Ranteesi, a senior Hamas leader, said that Israel "had opened the gates of hell," by assassinating Yassin. "The Hamas reaction to the assassination of Sheikh Yassin will be as rough as a heavy earthquake," he said.
The Palestinian Authority and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat condemned the assassination and called it "an awful crime that would ignite the whole region and renew violence in the region."
Yassin was born in 1936, in the village of Al Joura near the city of Ashkelon, before the establishment of the state of Israel. He and his family left the village during the war of 1948 and came to live in Gaza as refugees.
Yassin was arrested by Israel in 1984 for possession of weapons, but was released in a prisoner deal with the Palestinians in 1985. He was again arrested in 1989 and sentenced to life in prison, accused of ordering the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers. He was released in 1997, in exchange for two Mossad agents arrested in Jordan after attempting to assassinate a senior Hamas leader in Amman.
Since Yassin's last release, his supporters claim, he had focused on educational and charity activities, as well as rebuilding the movement's associations in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel, however, holds him responsible for numerous suicide attacks in Israel and the occupied territories.
Yassin escaped an assassination attempt last October while meeting with three other Hamas leaders in a house in Gaza City. Although he was known to be targeted by Israel, his death on Monday stunned many Palestinians.