In the latest and most dramatic of Israel's extrajudicial executions, the Israeli air force killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, early Monday morning on March 22 in a helicopter attack. Israeli planes fired three missiles at Yassinâ€™s car as he left a mosque near his house in Gaza City, killing him along with seven of his bodyguards. Seventeen people were injured.
Taking obvious pride in this latest killing, the Sharon government called it a â€œgreat success,â€ even while acknowledging that â€œthere will be a price to pay.â€ We can all rest assured it will not be the Sharon government who will pay that price.
Yassin is generally recognized as the key individual who founded Hamas in the late 1980s. It is also generally recognized that Israel encouraged the formation of Hamas as a counter-balance to the populist and secular PLO (this may seem rather surprising, but even the Israeli daily Maâ€™ariv repeats this point in their coverage of Yassinâ€™s killing here.) Yassin was in prison from 1989 until 1997 when he was released in a prisoner exchange as penance for Israel's botched assassination attempt of another Hamas leader in Amman, the capital of Jordan.
Israel has carried out many political assassinations in the past, although this incident is larger in scale and will be larger in its consequences. Back in 2001, the military affairs correspondent for Yediot Ahoronot (Israel's leading daily, with a generally center-right bent), Alex Fishman concluded that the policy of targeted assassinations was aimed precisely at enflaming militant groups, not at deterring them. He pointed out that Israel tends to commit these killings when the militant groups appear to be in a lull or are saying they will consider cease-fires. Yassin himself recently said that an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories could be met with a long-term Hamas ceased-fire.
Perhaps it was that statement that led to this attack, or perhaps it was part of a tactic to garner support for the annexation of vast swaths of the West Bank that Sharon has been pursuing in tandem with his proposals for a Gaza withdrawal. But what we can be sure did not lead to this act was the horrific bombing at Ashdod last week, or any plan to diminish attacks on Israelis.
Encouraging, not deterring attacks on civilians
Israeli sources have reported that Ariel Sharon supervised the entire operation, receiving constant updates in the safety of his ranch in the Negev.
A litany of right-wing Israeli leaders is now making predictable statements that this act will deter terrorism in the long run. But this contention flies in the face of history. In truth, Israel has engaged in such operations for many years, well before the onset of the current intifada, and far from stemming attacks on Israeli civilians, they have, in fact, increased them.
Yassinâ€™s assassination in particular is even starker as an impetus for furthering, not stemming violence. A symbol for Islamic radicalism in Palestine, Yassin was the single most recognizable figure among radical Palestinian militant groups. But his importance as a Hamas operative, the purported reason for his execution, was far less than his fame as a spokesman and inspirational leader.
Hamas is like similar groups such as Islamic Jihad, al-Qaeda, the ETA, the Tamil Tigers and others. They are all non-governmental militant groups that employ terrorism, meaning attacks against civilians. (When governments engage in state terrorism, there is a much clearer and stricter hierarchy of command). These groups are diffuse; they have minimal, if any centralization of leadership. Killing people in senior leadership roles therefore does little to diminish the group's ability to attack. And Yassin, from the day he was released from an Israeli prison, has been known not to have been particularly involved in planning military operations.
Moreover, Yassin was 87 years old, almost totally deaf, and a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. In other targeted killings, Israel could claim that the target was involved in some imminent or recent attack. But not so with Yassin. As a leader of Hamas, and certainly an inspirational one who could be said to have motivated or green-lighted the murder of Israeli civilians, Yassin could have legitimately been tried for war crimes. But there is neither a legal nor a tactical justification for this action, which is itself a war crime.
Rather than bringing the Middle East closer to peace, what Yassin's death will do is enflame Palestinian militants, far beyond Hamas. It will inspire a new round of attacks against Israelis, including civilians. It will also create new militants out of some Palestinians who had hoped for peace, as does every Israeli incursion, assassination, and other provocative act. It is even surer to fuel more violence since Israel clamped a full closure on the Occupied Territories in the wake of this operation. Thus, the entire Palestinian population under occupation pays for an Israeli strike.
Why did Israel decide on this execution?
If we discount the clearly false notion that Yassinâ€™s death will hurt Hamas, we must ask why the Sharon government decided to do this. Yassin is a very recognizable figure, as much to Israelis as Palestinians,. Ariel Sharon may hope that this will increase his failing standing with the Israeli public. In exchange for that hoped-for increase in public opinion polls, many Israelis and Palestinians will surely die or be injured.
An increase in Hamas attacks will strengthen Sharonâ€™s case for both unilateral withdrawal and the â€œseparation wallâ€. It will also weaken the Palestinian Authority. Support for the PA has been steadily seeping away for months, as it is seen as ineffectual and corrupt by many Palestinians. As Danny Rubenstein pointed out in Ha'aretz, â€œThe more Israel hits Hamas leaders and rank-and-file members, the more their popularity climbs. In tandem, they become increasingly immune to operations by the PA's security force, since any such operation would only be interpreted as treacherous collaboration with Israel.â€
The policy of extrajudicial executions, or "targeted assassinations," as it is called in Israeli and American parlance, is both illegal and ineffective. It only makes an already terrible situation worse. And the American response has been an impotent call for â€œrestraint on both sides.â€ But then, what can we expect from an administration which is itself engaged in a massive military occupation in Iraq?
The Bush administration is bound by its own actions and rhetoric. Surely they comprehend that this was an inflammatory action that will do little to harm Hamas, and much to enhance Hamasâ€™ standing with Palestinians. This does not serve George Bush well in his hopes for a break in major upheavals in Israel/Palestine while he is running for re-election. But the Americans have bound themselves to Sharon through their â€œwar on terror,â€ severely limiting their ability to criticize such actions or to restrain Sharon. Because Sharon is one of Americaâ€™s few steadfast supporters in its occupation of Iraq, he is far freer from American pressure than his predecessors have been. Because of Americaâ€™s own rhetoric and actions in the â€œwar on terror,â€ the U.S. has little credibility in criticizing such actions as these, without seeming quite hypocritical, even to the American public.
Finally, this incident illustrates the bankruptcy of both American policy in the Israel-Palestine conflict and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The Bush administration continues to careen forward without any semblance of a plan, or any distinct policy. The threadbare and ineffectual roadmap has been meaningless. The preoccupation with the occupation of Iraq has given Sharon a great deal of freedom to act. And he has used that freedom to build a wall through the West Bank that will create much of the de facto border which mimics the â€œplanâ€ he announced last year for a Palestinian state on 42% of the West Bank. He has escalated violence, and continued settlement expansion. And now, in order to ensure that he continues to have that freedom, he has committed an act which is sure to cost a great many Israeli lives, giving him the justification he will need to push his program forward.
It is crucial that the international community take note and respond to these events. The Israel-Palestine conflict is at its worst point, and the situation continues to spiral downward. The European Union and the United Nations must take more active roles in pushing for a negotiated settlement that addresses the needs and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. But they cannot do that until the United States changes its own policies, and allows other bodies to be more involved. It is up to the American public to bring that change about. We must change the disastrous course Bush has allowed this conflict to pursue, just as surely as we must change the course of US involvement in Iraq.