Eye for an Eye

In the Middle East, things will surely get much worse before they get better.

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How are events playing out in Israel-Palestine after the killing of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas? Badly. Hamas’s leaders vow — and no doubt are planning — revenge, and Sharon promises to kill every single one of them. Things will surely get much worse before they get better.

David Ignatius of the Washington Post describes the Machiavellian game whereby Sharon is hoping to rule through intimidation.

The killing of Sheik Yassin might be justified — politically if not morally — if it stopped the spread of the terrorism Yassin had helped foment. But even by this test, the assassination seems unlikely to achieve its intended result.

And how does Israel imagine that Gaza will be governed once it pulls out? Before the Yassin assassination, Egypt had signaled a willingness to help with security. And Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority had drawn up plans (with the tacit approval of Yassin) for restoring law and order after the Israeli army leaves. Both efforts may now collapse in the uproar over Yassin’s death. It’s hard to see how Israel will benefit from the resulting anarchy.

But there is a deeper issue, one that goes to the heart of Israel’s dilemma in dealing with the Arabs. Sharon symbolizes the belief that the Palestinians can be intimidated by military force — and that peace will be possible only when they are sufficiently weakened and humbled. If Israel is tough enough, by this logic, it will eventually break the Arabs’ will and force them to accept Israel’s right to exist.

That rationale sent Israeli tanks rolling into Lebanon 22 years ago, in an operation Sharon believed would break the PLO and open the way to peace. But it didn’t work out that way, and many Israelis now agree that the Lebanon war was a costly failure.

Who are Sharon’s new targets? Khaled Mashaal, in exile in neighboring Syria, is the new top leader. In Gaza, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi is in charge. Mashaal survived poisoned Israeli darts seven years ago; Rantisi narrowly escaped an Israeli helicopter missile last June. They’ll be lucky to survive much longer.

Rantisi looks to be more radical even than Yassin. The sheik offered Israel a truce in January (which Israel rejected as insincere). Rantisi isn’t expected to extend any such olive branches.

The Scotsman paints a concise
portrait of Rantisi, who doesn’t even pretend to support a peace process. He lived in a refugee camp as a boy in the 1950s. By the end of the 1980s, he had helped to co-found Hamas with the purpose of evicting Jews from Israel and creating a Muslim Middle East. He was the first of the group’s original leaders to be imprisoned by Israel. Jailed on and off for a total of seven years, at one point in the same cell as Yassin, he memorized the Koran. In 1992 Israel banished him to Lebanon, where he became known as a voice for Palestine, soon bringing his message home to the Gaza Strip where he mobilized people to the cause of Hamas

Amid unanimous condemnations of the assassination by European leaders, the United States was cautious not to offend Israel, even though Palestinian hardliners were pledging to broaden their vengeance by targeting U.S. interests. (Rantisi quickly backed away from this and said Israel alone is Hamas’s target. Hamas has never struck a target outside Israel or Palestine. Still, Americans abroad are on high alert.)

Amin Saikal warns in the International Herald Tribune that the U.S. will not escape the consequences:

The fact that Israel has American weapons to assassinate Yassin, and the spectacle of Washington once again coming out to shield Israel against widespread international condemnation, can only further fuel not only Palestinian and Arab but also Muslim anger against the United States. This, together with the miserable conditions of existence endured by Iraqis under the U.S.-led occupation, will most likely drive more Muslims to identify with the positions of radical extremists such as Osama bin Laden.

If Al Qaeda needed one further event to shore up its position among Muslims and widen its recruitment and operations, the assassination of Yassin may have provided it. Israel and its international backers may find that this assassination returns to haunt them.

Instead, Rami Khouri of Lebanon’s Daily Star
explains that U.S. military intervention in the region makes people there increasingly suspicious of American motives:

The intense, spontaneous reaction throughout the Arab world …is an instructive insight into the prevailing mood in this region, one year after the Anglo-American-led coalition chose to wage war to change the regime in Iraq. The linkage between the two issues – Israel assaulting Palestinians, and Americans assaulting Iraqis – is very strong throughout most Arab countries, contrary to the prevailing American-Israeli view that prefers to separate the two conflicts. …

Anti-US sentiment in the region will increase, possibly translating into attacks against American targets, especially after Washington’s conspicuous refusal to condemn the assassination. …

Most people and institutions in the Middle East, suffering a stunning combination of helplessness and hopelessness, have had serious trouble coming to grips with the twin problems of the Israeli assault against Palestine and the Anglo-US assault on Iraq.

Israel’s daily Haaretz rails against the escalating violence in Israel, and says it will fuel precisely the Islamic extremism that Bush professes to be targeting in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Last week’s cabinet decision to kill off the Hamas leadership broke the rules of the game, and could move the armed conflict to areas never seen before. For the first time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken on a religious dimension since the target chosen by Israel was an Islamic leader whose symbolic stature went far beyond the borders of the country. Moreover, the declared decision – to assassinate the entire political and spiritual leadership of the Hamas, on the grounds that they initiate terror operations and are responsible for them – pushes them into a corner where they have nothing left to lose. It will also provoke them into adopting a particularly extremist approach, hoping for unusually spectacular terror attacks that would revive their own deterrence against Israel and reestablish the balance of fear on which the violent conflict has taken place until now.

But it’s not only the practical considerations that raise questions about the wisdom of the cabinet decision from last week. The approach that chooses to deal with Palestinian terror by assassinating individual leaders, instead of a determined effort to reach an agreement with the PA on renewing dialogue, is wrongheaded. Sheikh Yassin was not a “ticking bomb” in the sense that it is possible to accept, under unusual and necessary circumstances, killing terrorists on their way to conduct a terror attack. His assassination appeared to be more of a noisy punishment than a thought-out preventive operation.

Jonathan Cook of Cairo’s Al-Ahram believes that Sharon’s controversial plan to evacuate Israeli settlements from the Gaza strip is a way out of the U.S.-backed “roadmap.” He describes how Sharon wants to distract from international demands to halt construction of his security fence and remove Jewish settlers from other contested territories. Cook explains that Sharon is packaging his recent moves for White House consumption.

With the PA struggling to keep control of the Strip in the face of Hamas’s increasing popularity, Sharon hopes the power vacuum left by an Israeli evacuation will provoke a Palestinian civil war. He believes this would seal his argument, in US eyes, that the Palestinians are not ready for statehood.

In recent weeks Sharon has sent a stream of officials to Washington to sell his evacuation plan to the White House. The Bush administration’s major concern is that the region remain quiet in the run-up to presidential elections.

Israelis don’t generally share the international outrage at Yassin’s killing. Polls there suggest that two of three Israelis support Sharon’s decision. Only 40 percent of respondents to a Web site poll by the Jerusalem Post thought that Israel would become less secure as a consequence of the assassination.

Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian tries to explain how an 18-year-old Palestinian’s recent attempt to blow up a chemical depot influenced Israeli opinion:

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 10 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.

The Economist supports the consensus view that Sharon’s approach is self-defeating:

The killing of Mr Yassin is a great gust in the PA’s house of cards. While it nominally governs the Gaza strip and its 1.2m Arab inhabitants, Israeli incursions and checkpoints have weakened the grip of the PA’s security forces on the territory. As the PA has become riven by factional infighting, support for Hamas has steadily grown—in Gaza, its influence now exceeds the PA’s. To try to revive the tattered “road map” peace plan, the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, had been trying to persuade the Palestinian militants to agree to a ceasefire. But the militants had demanded in return that Israel halt its assassinations of their leaders and fighters.

Of course this leaves ordinary people increasingly desperate.
Reuters quotes
an exasperated 40-year old Palestinian salesman and father saying, “I just want some peace and stability. The top priority is feeding my six children, not Jihad.” A doctor at the hospital that received Yassin’s remains says, “We are sick of seeing heads and body parts. We treat about 100 victims of Israeli troops a month.” The families and friends of more than 350 Israelis who have died in Palestinian attacks since the second intifada began in 2000 no doubt would also prefer an end to the killing.

Meanwhile, some of the first retaliatory strikes by Palestinians are being attempted by children. On Wednesday Israeli forces prevented a 14-year-old boy from blowing himself up near a roadblock. They have arrested 40 children attempting suicide bombings since 2001. Police divert an average of five weekly potential terror attacks

Ignatius of the Washington Post concludes:

It would be fatuous to give the Israelis advice about their security. They live under the shadow of terrorism, and they must find their own solution. But they should consider the evidence of more than two decades that Sharon’s approach isn’t working. Rather than being humbled into submission, the Palestinians have embraced a strategy of suicidal rage. How will this gruesome cycle of violence end? Today that’s impossible to answer. But perhaps both sides could begin by considering the possibility that Machiavelli was wrong. Sometimes it may actually be safer to be loved than feared. An Israel that took risks for peace might find unexpected rewards.


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Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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