To 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 on Tuesday 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."
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How could any of this be in Israel's interest? Hamas will now galvanize 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 Palestinian PresidentYasser 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 Israeli Prime Minister 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 percent of whom back the action according to a couple of instant polls on Tuesday.
Their perspective 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 11 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.
Israeli officials 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 one.
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 to kill.
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.
Today's government believes former prime minister 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 defense 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 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 Authority.
That is not the only disadvantage of the unilateral pullout that Sharon has in mind. There are others -- Sharon 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.
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