Israel Killed Yassin
By Jonathan Freedland
24 March, 2004
the outside world, Israel's assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin looks
either indefensible or inexplicable or both. Some have moral objections
to the killing of a paraplegic cleric, wheeled out from morning prayers;
others have legal worries about extra-judicial killings. Even those
with no qualms of principle, and with sympathy for Israel, scratch their
heads to work out the logic of such an act.
For surely it will
be Israelis themselves who will pay the price, becoming the targets
of a fierce and bloody revenge. Few doubt that Hamas will respond to
the death of their venerated leader with a different order of violence
- not "just" another bus bombing which kills 20 or 30, but
an atrocity that will claim Israeli victims in the hundreds. What kind
of instinct for self-harm could prompt an Israeli government to stage
such a provocative act? European commissioner Chris Patten caught the
mood when he suggested yesterday that Israel had dealt with a fire by
pouring gasoline on the flames.
Others are no less
baffled by a recklessness that seems bent on turning what was a national
dispute over land between Israelis and Palestinians into a religious
war between Jews and Muslims: what other outcome can there be from killing
a leader in a mosque? Hamas is already threatening to take its war beyond
Israel and the occupied territories, warning that all Zionists (and
Americans) will now be targets. The movement's new leader calls for
"the Muslim nation" to wake from its sleep and take up arms;
another faction calls for "War, war, war on the sons of Zion."
How could any of
this be in Israel's interest? Hamas will now galvanise support using
the most powerful symbol possible, a martyr whose face was already a
national totem. Many in the al-Aqsa brigades, nominally aligned with
Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, had already been moving towards Hamas,
especially in Gaza. Now they will complete the shift and accept Hamas's
leadership, say those who observe radical Islamism close up. Hamas will
increase its standing within global Islamism, too, now that it has its
own bona fide martyr, say these same experts: witness the street demonstrations
for Yassin across the Muslim world. Even within Israel proper, the assassination
is causing tremors. Thousands of Arab Israelis, citizens of the state,
massed in Nazareth yesterday, the greatest show of anger by that community
- which makes up a fifth of the Israeli population - since Ariel Sharon's
notorious walkabout on the Temple Mount in September 2000.
This is what the
rest of the world sees, an action which may have offered a brief, cathartic
pleasure, but which is bound to bring only pain raining down on Israelis.
Yet that is not how the Israeli cabinet that approved the killing saw
it, nor apparently Israelis themselves, some 60% of whom back the action
according to a couple of instant polls yesterday.
is entirely different. They don't believe they have poured petrol on
the flames; the petrol was already there. Look, they say, at the double
bombings in Ashdod 10 days ago. Overshadowed by Madrid, and with a death
toll of "just" 11, they made little news here. But they were
a break from the usual Hamas pattern; they did not aim to blow up a
pizzeria or a bus, but a vast chemical plant. They failed, but Israel
was left in no doubt that Hamas was aiming at a qualitatively different
event, one that would have left hundreds if not thousands dead. According
to this logic, it was not Yassin's slaying that escalated the conflict
but Hamas itself.
say that Yassin was no spectator to this process. He may have been aged
and bound to a wheelchair, but he was the "guiding hand" of
a movement in a state of mortal combat with Israel. Don't be deceived
into thinking recent months have seen a lull in violence, says Israel.
Hamas militants attempt four or five large-scale attacks a week: it
is just that most of them are foiled. According to Israel, Yassin may
not have drawn the maps and set the timers, but he was behind every
So why didn't the
Israelis simply pounce on Yassin, whose movements were regular and well-known,
and arrest him? "Because that would have entailed major street
battles," says one official, "risking the loss of our own
forces. And we don't waste them on the likes of Ahmed Yassin."
As for international
law, the very idea meets with derision. Does international law stop
those who murder Israelis in cafes? No, it does nothing for them. One
government figure told me it was "sickening" to speak of international
law - it asks one side to play by the rules, leaving the other free
None of which explains
why Israel chose to act now. (After all, if Yassin posed such a lethal
threat to Israel, was it not a dereliction of duty for Sharon not to
have "taken him out" three years ago?) The key to the timing
is Sharon's plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the plan
which has replaced the US-backed road-map as the only glimmer of possible
progress. "We're not going to leave Gaza with our tails between
our legs," says one high-ranking Israeli official.
believes former PM Ehud Barak erred by withdrawing from Lebanon apparently
under fire - it made heroes of Hezbollah and emboldened Hamas. It is
determined not to repeat that mistake. It wants to pull out in the context
of a military victory, having "seared into the Palestinian consciousness"
the futility of resistance against Israel.
That is why Israel's
defence chiefs reportedly ended a five-hour meeting on Monday resolving
to kill the entire Hamas leadership. The Israeli brass is anxious not
to leave Gaza to become what chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon calls "Hamasland".
Instead they will leave behind a crushed, decapitated Islamist movement.
The message will be clear: this withdrawal was a "one-off".
Further terrorism will not bring further Israeli withdrawals, there
will be no domino effect: it will only bring fire on those who dare
try it. Note Ya'alon's icy warning to Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah leader
Hassan Nasrallah that "their turn is drawing near."
Will any of this
work? I doubt it. Israelis may feel better leaving Gaza having crushed
the enemy (though heaven knows what fury they would have unleashed),
but Hamas will still brag, with some justification, that their three
years of "armed struggle" achieved more than seven years of
patient negotiation by the secularist moderates of Arafat's Palestinian
That is not the
only disadvantage of the unilateral pullout that Sharon has in mind.
There are others - the PM will draw the borders that suit him, even
if they entail a grab on Palestinian land and make a future Palestinian
state unviable, the new border will have no international legitimacy,
and will therefore provide none of the stability, security and recognition
that both sides crave. But the greatest danger is the one that is playing
out right now - that, once again, Sharon has strengthened the extremists,
empowering not the makers of peace, but the bringers of war.