Gates of Hell

Violence in the Middle East looks set to enter a new and catastrophic spiral.


“[Sharon] has opened the gates of hell and nothing will stop us from cutting off his head. War, war, war on the sons of Zion. An eye for an eye. There will be a response within hours, God willing.” (Hamas, in a fax to the Associated Press, responding to the killing of the group’s founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.)

“I want to make clear the war on terrorism is not over and will continue daily everywhere.”
(Ariel Sharon, justifying Yassin’s killing.)

Sharon is right to this extent: far from being over, the violence in the Middle East — call it a war on terror, call it an intifada — is about to enter a new and catastrophic spiral of strike and couterstrike.
In Yassin, Israel has killed not only what the Washington Post calls a “top target,” but also a powerful symbol of Palestinian defiance, making this is the most significant assassination by Israeli forces since the intifada began in September 2000. To say that Palestinian reprisals will be comparably significant is to state the obvious.

The killing of Yassin has essentially torched the already tattered “Road Map” to peace and left Israelis and Palestinians more lost than ever. The Israeli government closed the border between its territory and the Gaza Strip and West Bank in anticipation of immediate Palestinian attacks.

The attack is as much a blow to the Palestinian Authority as to Hamas, because,
according to
Haaretz:

the more Israel hits Hamas leaders and rank-and-file members, the more their popularity climbs. In tandem, they become increasingly immune to operations by the PA’s security force, since any such operation would only be interpreted as treacherous collaboration with Israel…

There are some 20,000 armed Palestinian Authority police officers in the Gaza Strip, compared to barely 2,000 armed Hamas members. Nonetheless, the balance of power between them is not based solely on number, but on the public standing that each group enjoys.

The assassination of Yassin could, therefore, merely contribute to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and, by creating chaos in the Gaza Strip, turn Hamas into the only side to profit from Yassin’s death.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Queria said Yassin gave hope to his people, but that his death would only ignite rage. He warned:

This is a crazy and very dangerous act. It opens the door wide to chaos. Yassin is known for his moderation and he was controlling Hamas and therefore this is a dangerous, cowardly act.

The initial reaction on the streets proved Qureia right. As word spread around sunrise on Monday, Palestinians flooded Gaza City streets, firing rifles and throwing grenades. The Washington Post describes a fury-filled day, with shops and schools shuttered as 200,000 mourners called for revenge. Al-Jazeera reports that a Palestinian with an axe attacked three people near a military base. Militant Lebanese group Hezbollah echoed its neighbors’ outrage by striking several Israel Defense Forces posts.

Most Americans have never heard of Yassin, but his death could have
consequences for the U.S. American officials deny prior knowledge of the strike but Hamas is blaming America for supporting Israel. European and Arab leaders condemned the attacks, but the United States initially stopped short of condemnation and simply urged moderation by all parties. After being pressed by world opinion Monday, the administration changed its stand and professed itself “deeply troubled” by the assassination.

Experts quoted in the Jerusalem Post predicted that terrorist attacks would expand their reach abroad, unifying ties between Hamas , al-Qaeda, and other hardline groups like Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

In striking Yassin, Israel was taking a gamble. Laura King of the Los Angeles Times
writes:

The frail and ailing Yassin, although himself the picture of physical powerlessness, probably did more than any other figure to sear into the consciousness of these young Palestinians the notion that a death sought in order to inflict a bloody blow upon a hated enemy was a glorious one.

That stature is a double-edged sword for Israel – on the one hand, Yassin is held in such high regard by ordinary Palestinians that a strike at him is incendiary. On the other hand, leaving him free to preach his message of holy war against the Jewish state is regarded by many in the Israeli security establishment as equally dangerous.

Yassin always denied any personal involvement in the planning and execution of suicide attacks. But in mosque sermons and teachings, he repeatedly portrayed them as a divinely inspired means for the weak to strike at the powerful. He depicted such attacks not as a mere military strategy, but a means of those who carried them out to automatically achieve oneness with God – something Yassin himself professed to long for. The many innocent victims of suicide bombings, mounting into the hundreds as the intifada dragged on, were never even part of the equation.

Aside from its militant wing, Hamas, which Israel nourished in the 1980s as a soft alternative to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, supplies tens of millions of dollars in aid to Palestinian social services including schools and hospitals.

Why would Israel take such a risk?

An Israeli government spokesman claimed that the attack would actually dampen the danger of Hamas. Israel’s defense minister promised
to continue a campaign to dismantle the organization.

Unlike Yasser Arafat, Yassin supported Sharon’s stunning February announcement that he would dismantle Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Maariv suggests that Yassin’s killing is part of Sharon’s plan. Instead of a wholesale withdrawal, the Israeli government wants to evacuate settlers in strategic stages so that it can lessen Hamas’ hold on the region and fortify fences before ceding swaths of land exclusively to Palestinians.

Al Jazeera reported that according to Israel’s deputy defense minister, the escalation aims to prevent Palestinians from claiming the Gaza withdrawal as their own victory.

London’s Guardian notes that if this is Israel’s reasoning, it’s unrealistic:

There is no reason to suppose this will succeed. It is far more likely that the offensive against Hamas will merely increase the bloodshed on both sides, boosting the recruitment of suicide bombers and enhancing the stature of Hamas over that of the traditional and more secular Palestinian leadership headed by Yasser Arafat.

The martyrdom – as many Palestinians see it – of Hamas leaders and members at the hands of Israeli forces also makes it more difficult for the Palestinian Authority to keep order. Efforts by the PA security forces to crack down on religious militants tend to be viewed as collaboration with Israel, further damaging the PA’s credibility with the Palestinian public.

Though Hamas faces international condemnation for its military tactics, especially its use of suicide bombers, on the streets of Gaza it is perceived rather differently – as an effective, corruption-free organisation that is ready to make sacrifices for the cause – in contrast to Mr Arafat and his deadbeat cronies.

The assassination of Sheikh Yassin will do nothing to dispel that view and will probably hasten the day when Hamas becomes the main representative of Palestinians in Gaza.