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

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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