I met Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder killed in an Israeli attack last week, shortly after he was released from prison a few years ago.
His humble residence in Gaza, typical of the homes of other Hamas leaders, stood in great contrast to the luxurious homes of Palestinian Authority Fatah leaders in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas leaders have always had a reputation for modest living. Possessing no luxury cars, sumptuous offices or designer suits, they became adored by the Palestinian street.
Wheelchair-bound Sheikh Yassin explained to me succinctly that he was unable to recognise Israel's existence, although he would be willing to accept a ceasefire should Israel retreat to the 1967 "green line" boundaries.
His voice was high and shrill, but surrounded by his grown-up offspring, who nursed him round the clock, he expressed himself clearly and calmly.
The Hamas movement will find it very difficult to replace Sheikh Yassin and I expect a power struggle to ensue. A bitter enemy of Israel, who supported and instigated suicide attacks against Israeli civilians, he was involved in all aspects of Hamas activities - political, military and ideological.
Hamas today is the leading opposition group in Palestinian society. It advocates and practises a continuation of the armed struggle against Israel, insisting it has no right to exist as a Jewish state, since all of Palestine is considered a holy Islamic land that belongs only to Muslims. Yet the movement is only 15 years old.
Until Hamas was created in 1988, resistance to Israel was secular and nationalistic, with left-wing, Marxist overtones. Arab "revolutionary" regimes had sought support since the 1950s from the Soviet bloc, and the Palestinian movements under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organisation obtained arms and political backing from the Soviet Union and its allies.
The left-leaning and nationalist PLO was a common enemy in the 1970s for both Israel and the Islamic religious movement, of which Sheikh Yassin was a member. The son of an Arab refugee family from 1948, disabled since his teens by a sporting accident, he completed his religious studies in Cairo, and became involved with the Islamic movement when he returned to Gaza.
As a young journalist in the early 1970s, I joined Israel's deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, at the dedication ceremony of the Islamic Academy in Hebron, which the Israeli military authorities even funded for more than seven years. Many graduates of this very institution became the most vicious enemies of the State of Israel. …