Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian activists and leaders has now escalated to touch the very highest tiers of Palestinian leadership, supposedly in response to the provocation of Palestinian suicide bombings. This change marks a new wider shift in the tenor and very nature of the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict and confrontations.
While it is easy to view the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin as part of the ongoing escalation of violence between the two sides, that view is also simplistic. One must explore the strategic roots of this ever-growing phenomenon, and that question must turn the focus on the Israeli government as the only variable that has changed since the breakdown in talks.
We now have a government in Israel that is responsible for transforming the nature of our struggle. Previously, Palestinians and Israelis were more or less in agreement over the guidelines to the solution--basically the two state solution as stipulated in the terms of reference of the peace process and international legality. The differences between the two sides were not minor, but they all were located in determining the details of this solution. For example, at the 2000 Camp David talks, agreement broke down over various details of how to implement two states: the percentage of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, the borders that would be drawn between the two states, which settlements would be dismantled, how to solve the refugee issue, how to divide Jerusalem, and so on.
Since then, a revolution has taken place. The peace camp in Israel is entirely marginalized and those groups that opposed the peace process are now in power. That opposition has capitalized on this new reality and succeeded in transferring the conflict and confrontations from a discussion over the details of creating two neighboring states to an existential conflict. This Israeli government has spent most of its energies trying to negate the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state by reoccupying the territories of the Palestinian Authority and gradually emasculating the Palestinian Authority itself.
This new character of the conflict naturally brings new levels of confrontation. It is useful to remember that Israel tried the assassination policy on the Palestinian leadership in previous phases of the struggle, namely before the initiation of the peace process and at a time when the two sides had not yet decided to compromise, but were still trying to wipe each other out. The 1960s and 70s witnessed a great number of Israeli assassinations of leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But Israel did not learn its lesson. Those assassinations only succeeded in intensifying the confrontations and increasing determination among Palestinians to continue the fight. The same can be said for the current round of political eliminations. Assassinations strengthen Palestinian hostility, and consequently provide a backbone for the ongoing violence.
But let us make no mistakes. Those Israelis who understand Palestinian political structures and aspirations also knew in advance the likely outcome of this assassination for the Palestinian balance of power. Therefore, if they were trying to systematically tilt this balance further against the Palestinian Authority, the peace camp, and the secular camp, then they have made no mistakes.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
A week after the assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, it is easy to draw up a list of justifications for the act. It is equally easy to demonstrate that on balance the killing was a serious mistake, reflecting a dangerous absence of strategic wisdom on the part of its perpetrators. But this entire discussion of the assassination of a terrorist must not be allowed to obfuscate the more important basic fact that the assassinations reflect: none of the relevant leaders has a realistic strategy for peace, or even for ending the violence.
This targeted killing was justified because Sheikh Yassin was a major terrorist leader, and in the post 9/11 era there are no longer inhibitions about eliminating terrorist leaders. It was popular with the Israeli public because the public, legitimately, wants its terrorist tormentors to be punished. With Israel having announced its plan to leave the Gaza Strip, it was legitimate to expect that terrorism from and within Gaza would cease; when it did not, and when Hamas leaders, with Hezbollah's backing, escalated the terrorism (the Ashdod port attack), it made sense to launch a campaign to send a message of strength, and to diminish Hamas in favor of more moderate Palestinians, as part and parcel of the withdrawal plan. And while the murder of a quadriplegic political-religious figure in a wheelchair as he was leaving a mosque undoubtedly seems grotesque and cynical, it does send a deterrent message to Yassin's fellow religious terrorist leaders: witness the effect of the humiliating capture of Saddam Hussein on the likes of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. A previous round of assassinations led Hamas to agree to a hudna or ceasefire.
There is also an obvious political angle--cynical, but real--to the Yassin killing. By this act, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon silenced the militant critics of his disengagement plan within the Likud, and seemingly enhanced his "irreplaceable" status in anticipation of a possible criminal indictment. Some would add that there is an international angle, too--one that refers to the global war on terrorism: the election of the Zapatero government in Spain, with its platform of withdrawing from Iraq on the heels of the Qaeda attacks in Madrid, ostensibly sealed Yassin's fate, in the sense that a strong and aggressive anti-terrorist message was called for to counter the impression of appeasement emanating from Spain.
All these arguments and more can be mustered to justify the Yassin assassination. Yet it remains an act of futility, if not stupidity. While it may reduce Hamas' capabilities by striking at one leader and forcing others to go deep underground, it does not deter; on the contrary, it only increases the motivation of both the lower ranks and the leadership to kill Israelis, now including Israeli political leaders. While some moderate Arab leaders who fear militant Islam may secretly rejoice over Yassin's killing, they remain angry at Israel and embarrassed by its actions. Jordan's King Abdullah, in particular, was compromised and weakened in Arab eyes because he had met with Sharon scarcely two days before the assassination. Plans for the end-March Tunis Arab summit to reinforce the commendable Saudi peace initiative of two years ago were scrapped (along with the entire summit) by compromised Arab moderates. Perhaps of most concern, Yassin's martyrdom is liable to incite the Arab street to greater religious extremism and anti-Americanism, far from the borders of Israel.
After balancing out the pros and cons of this assassination, and in general of the policy of assassinating the political leadership of anti-Israeli terrorist organizations, the bottom line points to the strategic bankruptcy not just of Israel, but of all the relevant parties. Israel and the Palestinians appear to be capable of responding only to violence. It is difficult in logical terms to support the convoluted claim that we are softening up Gaza in March 2004 in anticipation of a justified withdrawal that is sponsored by a lame duck prime minister for all the wrong reasons (e.g., holding onto the West Bank) and which, if it happens, is scheduled for the summer of 2005. The seemingly endless succession of empty slogans emanating from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) leadership since this intifada began--"let the IDF win," "burn defeat into their consciousness," "Hamas is a strategic enemy" (what was it before, a tactical enemy?)--all reflect the lack of a strategy for ending the violence and winning the peace.
Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, including that of Hamas, have even less of a claim to a realistic strategy: they started the current conflict, have suffered far more, and appear to have learned nothing, whereas Sharon is at least planning to disengage. And US President George W. Bush seems oblivious to the damage caused by our conflict to his program of "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East.
If only Sharon at least had a realistic strategy for peace, assassinations might not be necessary. Certainly they would be far more justified.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
I was apprehensive all night as the TV satellite reception was dysfunctional, a usual sign of Israeli spy drones invading our skies when they are on their way to prepare a kill.
At 5:20 am, I was awakened by the thundering noise of the low flying F16, another sign of the Israelis closing in on a target. Five minutes later I heard a distant explosion and the local Palestinian TV station, the only available source of news, announced the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.
Immediately, Gaza was sealed off by the Israel Defense Forces, as was the West Bank--a prison locked. The skies filled with dark clouds of smoke as burning tires suddenly appeared in every corner. Tens of thousands gathered in the streets demanding revenge as the funeral procession of Yassin made its way to the cemetery. Gaza had never been this way before. Every man and woman was shaken with apprehension of what will come next.
The killing of Yassin was not surprising. Israeli officials recently declared that everyone, including the leaders of militant groups, is a legitimate target. It was obvious that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incensed by the suicide bombing in Ashdod, not only because a number of Israelis were killed, but because it proved that infiltration inside Israel remains possible in defiance of the notorious wall Israel has constructed and all of its other security measures.
Indeed, this whole story can be viewed as another form of the tribal revenge and retaliation that has continued for more than three years. Politicians and commentators are declaring that Sharon is mad and that by killing Yassin, he is throwing the whole area, if not the world, into chaos. But I don't think Sharon is mad or acting in retaliation. He has a plan, and it is working.
Sharon has succeeded in turning the clock back, destroying the Oslo agreement and the Palestinian Authority as a partner. Sharon has decided that peace is a mortal danger to Israel because it entails giving up the land in the West Bank. More seriously, Sharon is determined to kill the dream of the "loony left" of a binational state. He is ready to sacrifice even more Jews to stop it. Violation of international law is unimportant and the number of Palestinians murdered is of no consequence. Yassin is just another number on Sharon's list; there will be many to follow.
The killing of Yassin may well be one of the final nails in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority, after Sharon has meticulously carved it piece by piece into nothing. Not only intent on destroying the Authority, Sharon is all the more determined to kill any future partner--including Hamas.
Interestingly, Yassin once accepted an end to the conflict, one that included a Palestinian state next to Israel, and thus abandoned the dream of an Islamic state in historic Palestine. His main target was to end the Israeli occupation. It is important to remember that Hamas and all forms of resistance were born out of the Israeli occupation.
Last summer Yassin was instrumental in bringing to bear a unilateral ceasefire that held for nearly two months. Yassin was much-respected. His killing has elevated him to the level of sainthood, to a powerful model of martyrdom.
In the aftermath of Yassin's murder, Hamas could credibly strengthen its hold and assume the leadership in Palestine as President Yasser Arafat's Authority has degenerated into a symbol of humiliation and impotence. This was ingeniously executed by Sharon, helped--no doubt--by the Palestinian lack of leadership and vision, and at times assisted by blessings from the White House.
The killing of Sheikh Yassin in his wheelchair outside a mosque following the dawn prayer will not make Israel a safer place. It may temporarily offer Sharon safety in his position as he embarks on a new level of violence that will in turn make Hamas more popular and more militant and Israelis more frightened. Tragically, the logic of terror has played out very well for Sharon, while helping the Bush Corporation. Sharon desperately needs a Palestinian retaliation that will strengthen his hand against his domestic foes.
But it may all go wrong for Sharon and Bush alike as the truth shockingly becomes more apparent, and were the new leadership of Hamas to consider a dramatic change of course. It is not an impossibility to imagine new Gaza Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on the screen telling Israelis that he opposes more corpses and wants a just peace--telling them that, indeed, revenge is not his game.
In the killing of Yassin, only the death camp can rejoice. But this will be short-lived, as life always wins in the end. This is the lesson of history.
Dr. Eyad el Sarraj is the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP).
Assassinations, or as they are termed in Israel, "targeted killings," are nothing new to the Israeli intelligence community. But over the years, at least until the 1970s, they were considered a last resort, a means to be employed rarely and wisely.
There were a few reasons for this caution. First, many in the intelligence community thought over the years that espionage was not mafia-style Murder, Inc. More important, the policy of targeted killings is a double-edged sword. What you do to your opponents, they can do to you.
The first time Israeli intelligence carried out an assassination was on July 11, 1956. Colonel Mustafa Hafez, Egyptian commander of military intelligence in the Gaza Strip and the man responsible for sending the fedayeen infiltrators to Israel, was killed when a book he received exploded.
The use of mail bombs became a central tool in the 1960s, especially in harrassing and assassinating German (former Nazi) scientists who were involved in developing advanced weapons for Egypt.
After the Six-Day War, the fight against Palestinian terror, both in the territories and beyond the borders of Israel, moved assassinations up the ladder of Israeli intelligence priorities. But the watershed was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 by "Black September," a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) front. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered Mossad head Zvi Zamir to embark upon a campaign of targeted killings of anyone directly or indirectly connected with the athletes' murder.
It was the first time in the history of Israeli intelligence that it had been directed to initiate a "project"--not a one-time killing but a systematic elimination of dozens of people.
A pattern was set in motion at that time that became the basis for similar operations to this day. Intelligence compiled a list of targets; today it is known as a "bank". A special, limited forum known as the "X Committee" had the authority to approve Mossad requests to eliminate a person on the list. The X Committee would consult the attorney general, who served as a one-man court, sentencing the suspect to death.
This was also the first time that the motive for the assassination was revenge. Although it was couched in lofty terms like "deterrence" and "future prevention" of terror, it was clear that the urge to avenge the deaths of the Israeli athletes was the main reason for the decision.
The systematic assassination campaign suffered a near fatal blow in July 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway, when Mossad gunmen, out to eliminate Ali Hassan Salameh, who was believed to be the brains of Black September, mistakenly shot and killed a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Boushiki.
The failure in Norway brought several questions into sharp relief: Are targeted killings worthwhile? If so, who should the targets be? Although clear answers have never been formulated, a kind of tacit understanding was reached whereby targeted killings are permissible, in certain circumstances, but the use of this weapon must be cautious, wise and rare.
It was advisable that only senior operational commanders should be targeted, those whose deaths would result in a serious impairment of the organizations' operational capabilities. Responsibility should not be taken publicly so that Israel would not appear to be using terror itself, and so that its relations with other countries were not damaged, as they were with Norway and with Jordan after the attempt to assassinate Hammas leader Khaled Mashaal in 1997.
The intelligence community also assumes that it is possible, even desirable, to hit leaders of small organizations, those that are no more than a "one-man show." Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad, was killed in October 1995 on the assumption that killing him would put an end to the capabilities of his small organization. His presumed successor, Abdullah Ramadan Shalah, was considered ineffectual and lacking in leadership capabilities.
Those assumptions were proved wrong. Shalah proved to be a capable leader, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza has produced some of the worst suicide bombings of recent years.
The most important element that is always taken into consideration in discussions between the intelligence chiefs and the political echelon is the cost-benefit ratio. If the assassination leads to a severe response on the part of the terror organizations, then it was a losing proposition.
This consideration was apparently either forgotten when it came to the targeted killing of the director-general of Hezbollah, Abbas Moussawi, in southern Lebanon in 1992, or those who made the decision operated on the basis of mistaken assumptions. Hezbollah's response was stinging: two car bombs in Buenos Aires, against the buildings housing the Israel Embassy and the Jewish community organization, in which more than 100 people were killed and many were injured.
With hindsight, there is no doubt that many in the intelligence community believe that the 1988 decision to hit Khalil al-Wazir, Yasser Arafat's deputy, also known as Abu Jihad, was a mistake. Looking back, it is clear to many that his death left Arafat alone at the leadership level of the PLO, without the counsel of a talented and pragmatic strategist.
Always, even at the height of assassination wars, there was a kind of silent agreement on both sides not to hit "national" leaders. Here and there, exceptions cropped up, like the failed attempt of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to kill then former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion during a visit to Scandinavia in the 1960s, or plans devised already in the late 1960s and again in Lebanon in 1982 to kill Arafat.
Already in 1998, after the failed attempt against Meshal, the subcommittee for intelligence and security services of the Knesset which investigated the case published an unprecedented critical statement in which it said,"for many years the governments of Israel have not formulated policies in the war against terror organizations that are based on fundamental thought processes and continuity...".
But over the last three years, and especially with the unwise decision to kill Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, all the basic assumptions and past lessons have been forgotten or abandoned. From a weapon of last resort, assassination has become the most available of weapons; from wise and cautious use, it is now widespread and wholesale.
This change has damaged another, mainly psychological, assumption: the mystery that surrounded previous assassinations cast fear into the hearts of the enemy by their very rarity and sophistication. That mystery dissipates the moment the act becomes routine. This, more than anything else, shows the long road the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence and security forces have traveled, from daring and creativity to paralyzed thinking.
Yossi Melman is a senior correspondent with the Israeli daily Haaretz and author of several books on intelligence, clandestine diplomacy and foreign policy.
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