To his enemies he was the epitome of evil, but the man I met was the embodiment of one of the most unequal struggles of our times.

Sitting hunched in a wheelchair in his breezeblock Gaza home, the frail shaikh symbolised the Palestinians' apparently hopeless resistance against the Middle East's military superpower, Israel.

Enfeebled by flu and straining to speak, Shaikh Yasin explained the second Palestinian uprising as a reaction to the failure of the 1993 Oslo peace accords to change conditions in the Palestinian territories.

However, the trigger for the popular uprising, according to Shaikh Yasin, was now Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intrusion into Al-Aqsa, one of Islam's three holy mosques, and the killings of Palestinians in protests that followed.

Since those early days, the Hamas leader remained the inspiration behind the Intifada, refusing to accept what others felt was a road to collective suicide. Fighting from a much weaker position, the Palestinians must be prepared to accept much greater losses.

Tough choices

"The Palestinian people have two choices; either they surrender or they continue to resist", he told me.

In our interview, Yasin also strove to reverse popular Western misconceptions of the conflict by addressing its root causes.

Yasin opposed Oslo since it did
not include the right of return

"They [the West] consider the stand of the Palestinian people, who defend themselves with stones and all other means, to be unjustified violence against the Israelis," he said.

"This is an awful misunderstanding of the conflict. The West demands from us that we stop the resistance. Instead of asking the occupiers to leave our land, they ask us to surrender to the occupier."

Yasin opposed Oslo because it did not restore the right of return to the Palestinian diaspora nor guarantee Palestinians exclusive sovereignty over Al-Aqsa.

He saw it as an "oppressive settlement" that had been imposed on the Palestinians and saw its break-up and the return to arms by Fatah, the main arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, as a vindication of his view.

No real peace

"The peace that reinforces occupation and settlement and the exiling of the Palestinian people, that is not really peace," he said.

The West demands from us that we stop the resistance. Instead of asking the occupiers to leave our land, they ask us to surrender to the occupier"

Shaikh Ahmad Yasin,
Hamas spiritual leader

But this did not mean he rejected peace outright with his avowed enemy. That was possible so long as the Palestinians did not sign away their rights in perpetuity. Temporary truces could be negotiated with the Israeli leadership and could form the basis of bigger settlements in the future.

Nor did he rule out mutual coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in a future Islamic state, with full rights accorded to everyone as equal citizens.

When I bluntly asked him why his group failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants in resistance operations, Yasin remained unfazed by the implied criticism.

Israel's grey area

Israel's militaristic society, he said, had blurred the line between civilians and soldiers.

"The peace that reinforces occupation and settlement and the exiling of the Palestinian people, that is not really peace"

Shaikh Ahmad Yasin,
Hamas' spiritual leader

"All the Israeli people are combatants in the field of battle," he said.

"Those who do not wear a military uniform, male or female, have all been trained for battle. They are soldiers on call who will be called up when the time comes", he said, referring to Israel's strict conscription policy.

Hamas did not target civilians, he insisted, except in direct retaliation for Israeli killings of Palestinian civilians, a tactic "necessary to show the Israelis they could not get away without a price for killing our people".

Our brief session ended with a call on Muslims worldwide to continue to help the Palestinians. Firm in his conviction that Israelis could not deliver a just peace he asked the faithful to "awaken inside themselves the intention for jihad and prepare for it in order to liberate al-Aqsa and Jerusalem when the time comes."

His death has deprived him of that pleasure, but his legacy of unflinching resistance will inspire thousands in the years to come.

Faisal Bodi is a senior editor at Aljazeera.net