Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, marked an extraordinarily dangerous escalation in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. There could hardly be a more dramatic demonstration of the disparity in military power between the two parties to this conflict. The trouble is that there is no military solution and there are only losers in this dance of death.
Both the official Israeli justification for the killing of Yassin and the Hamas response were entirely predictable. Ariel Sharon described it as part of the war on terror and called Yassin the ‘first and foremost leader of the Palestinian terrorist murderers’. He compared him to Osama bin Laden and congratulated the Israeli security forces on their success. Hamas leaders overflowed with fury, seeing the killing as an attack on Islam. They vowed to take revenge and escalate the armed struggle until they achieve independence. Israel, they said, had opened the gates of hell. Secular Palestinian leaders denounced the attack as dangerous, crazy and cowardly and suspected that the motive was to create chaos in Palestinian society and bring about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
One thing was clear: with this single act of violence, Israel killed any prospect of a revival of the Middle East peace process. The road map, launched with so much fanfare a year ago, is now dead. All of Tony Blair’s efforts in prodding and persuading a reluctant George Bush to adopt this plan for a two-state solution by 2005 appear to have been in vain. No Arab leader can be expected even to talk about peace with Israel, given its callous disregard for both Muslim sensitivities and international legality.
The assassination is likely to strengthen rather than weaken Hamas. In the wretched Gaza refugee camps, recruitment of suicide bombers has never been much of a problem. With Yassin turned into a martyr, more desperate young people will rally behind the Islamic banner. Political support for Hamas is also likely to grow at the expense of its secular rival, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. Yassin’s spartan lifestyle commanded universal respect. His honesty and that of his colleagues stood in marked contrast to the endemic corruption in parts of Fatah.
Yassin’s removal will almost certainly tilt the internal balance within Hamas in favour of the more radical military wing. The political wing, headed by the organisation’s new leader, Dr Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, was much more pragmatic than is commonly realised in the West. It observed several ceasefires scuppered by Israel. While approving suicide bombings as the only weapon available to their movement, its leaders leaned increasingly towards de facto acceptance of Israel within its 1967 borders. Israel’s action, however, is bound to reinforce the argument of the hardliners that the Jewish state only understands force, and can only be dislodged from the occupied territories by force.
All this could have been predicted, so why did Israel embark on such a high-risk strategy? To answer this, you have to delve into the personality and policies of Israel’s Prime Minister, a right-wing extremist who abhors negotiations and compromise and imposes his will by brute force. He is a proponent of Greater Israel and the champion of violent solutions. The Palestinians pose the main challenge to his vision of Greater Israel, so he has always advocated the use of military force to crush them.
By destroying the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Sharon hoped to break the backbone of Palestinian nationalism and facilitate the absorption of the West Bank into Greater Israel. The war was a disaster, but Sharon doggedly persisted in his objective of denying the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine. Evidence for this is ably presented by the sociologist Baruch Kimmerling in Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War against the Palestinians.
Equally dogged Palestinian resistance since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada persuaded Sharon that the dream of Greater Israel had to be modified, if not abandoned. His new strategy rests on two main planks. One is the building of the wall on the West Bank that would prepare the way for the de facto annexation of roughly half its territory to Israel. The other, announced in January, involves unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Few Israelis want to hang on to Gaza, where there are 1.2 million Arabs and 7,500 Israeli settlers, who control 25 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the arable land. Sharon knows that the occupation cannot be sustained in the long term, so he wants to cut his losses to consolidate occupation of half of the West Bank. This plan amounts to an attempt to redraw the map of Israel-Palestine unilaterally without negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, without complying with any external diktats, and without following any international roadmaps.
Yet although Sharon’s plan is fixated exclusively on Israeli interests, it has met opposition inside his cabinet from the pro-settler, ultra-right-wing parties and from the aggressively hawkish Minister of Defence, Shaul Mofaz. The General Staff is worried that Hamas would turn Gaza into a launchpad for attacks on Israel, leaving it with a powerful enemy on its southern border. Therefore it wants to break Hamas before the withdrawal.
The decision to execute Yassin has to be seen in this light. Some Ministers and the director of the internal security service opposed the proposal on the grounds that it was illegal and would only increase the violence, but the majority voted in favour.
It transpired that the cabinet decided to eliminate not just Yassin but the entire Hamas leadership in response to the double suicide bombing in the port of Ashdod. This means that Israel will strike at Hamas leaders whenever opportunities present themselves, not only in retaliation. Israeli strikes will be followed, inevitably and inexorably, by Palestinian retaliation with suicide bombs. This is a recipe for violence and bloodshed without any hope. Sharon has truly opened the gates of hell.
Avi Shlaim is a British Academy Research Professor at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.