Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Why Israel assassinated Sheikh Yassin

The key to the paraplegic Hamas leader's death is Sharons plan to pull out of Gaza. But it will be Israelis themselves who will pay the price

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

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."

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.

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