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The Killing of Sheikh Yassin
Last uploaded : Wednesday 24th Mar 2004 at 23:52
Contributed by : Steve Weissman


Israel's killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmad Yassin on Monday was

(a) a brutal, boneheaded blunder, one of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's worst?

(b) a stroke of brilliance?

(c) a windfall for Hamas, moving the group closer to its goal?

(d) all of the above?

We all have our own reactions, depending on whether we support the Israelis or Palestinians, both or neither, religious or secular leadership, peaceful negotiations or armed confrontation. Here are my answers. I look forward to seeing your replies and learning something new.

(a) Was the killing boneheaded?

For most people around the world, the photographs told the story. A picture of a crippled, white-bearded man looking far older than his 67 years. Then a crumpled piece of his wheelchair and a large red bloodstain on the road where Israeli helicopter gunships sent three rockets to kill him.

The Israelis could not have bought themselves worse propaganda. No matter that Yassin headed a group - the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas - that organized some of the most brutal suicide bombings of Israeli men, women, and children. No matter that Hamas had itself escalated the violence only a few days before with its attack on the port of Ashdod, killing ten people.

No matter. As the world would see it, the Israeli Goliath killed a frail, old David, and tens of thousands of embittered Palestinians vowed revenge.

Except for the Americans, nearly every government on earth will condemn the Israelis, and increasing numbers of them will mean it, especially in Europe, where disgust for Israel is growing daily.

Call it unfair. Accuse the Europeans of double standards, holding Israel to a higher level of conduct than they demand of the Palestinians. Call everyone anti-Semites, and repeat once again that Jews, like everyone else, have a right to defend themselves. But every time Sharon escalates the violence, fewer people are listening, and those who were once the strongest defenders of the Jewish state are becoming its fiercest critics.

Call this losing the propaganda war, a loss that will cost Israel far more than whatever Yassin personally added to the bloodletting that Hamas will continue to do.

(b) Was the killing brilliant?

Sadly, it was.

Read Ze'ev Schiff, the well-placed defense correspondent writing in then Israeli daily Haaretz: "The message that Israel sent out by assassinating Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is that, when the disengagement from Gaza is finally implemented, Hamas will not be able to claim that the withdrawal was prompted by the group's terrorist operations."

If the Israelis could kill Yassin, and then walk away, they would be calling the tune, not beating a retreat. And, argues Schiff, this would make it harder for Hamas to convince other Palestinians that continued attacks would force the Israelis to leave the West Bank as well.

If, as many peace-minded, Israelis believe, Sharon intends to keep as much of the West Bank as he can, then consider the killing of Yassin as part of that struggle.

(c) Will the killing help Hamas?

Absolutely. Having done everything he could to wreck Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, Sharon has now given Hamas an ideal martyr and a new mantle of leadership. Arafat's people will warn of chaos, but their fear is that the new Hamas leaders will take charge.

If they do, a Palestinian independence movement that began as secular and nationalistic will increasingly become more pan-Islamic, in the tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood, which created Hamas. The new leadership will also follow a much harder line than Arafat, waging a religious jihad "until all of our blessed land is liberated from the river to the sea."

Just as many Jewish settlers believe that God promised the whole Land of Israel to them, Hamas believes that, in the eyes of Allah, "the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgment Day."

Those are the words of the Hamas Charter, which they could change, as Arafat did with the charter of his Palestinian Liberation Organization. But given Hamas's appeal to religious authority, any recognition of Israel's right to exist would be less likely.

In this light, strengthening Hamas does appear stupid. But, if Sharon wants to make a negotiated peace close to impossible, he might be smarter than anyone thinks. Vicious, but smart, at least in the near term.

One sidelight adds to the nastiness. From at least 1978, the Israelis covertly funded Yassin's efforts in hopes of dividing the Palestinian movement. The story was told by General Yitzhak Sager, the Israeli military governor in Gaza, and is widely known in Israel. Those chickens are now coming home to roost.

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