Murder most foul

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

The funeral procession of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza on March 22. - MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

The funeral procession of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza on March 22. - MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

The assassination of Hamas' spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin is seen as a move by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue his policy of incessant violence directed at the "opponents" of Israeli policies.

THE assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, by the Israeli security forces has further exacerbated the situation in West Asia. In an act of state-sponsored terrorism, Israeli helicopter gunships fired three missiles as Sheikh Yassin left the Islamic Association mosque in the densely populated al-Sabra neighbourhood in the centre of Gaza city. He was in his wheelchair and was accompanied by three bodyguards. One of the missiles hit the Hamas leader and his bodyguards. The other two exploded in the neighbourhood, killing four other civilians. Two of Sheikh Yassin's sons were seriously injured. Sheikh Yassin had survived an attempt on September 6, 2003, when Israeli warplanes bombed an apartment building in which he and another Hamas leader were present.

Sheikh Yassin had come to acquire a following in the wider Arab and Muslim world. The demonstrations that took place in many cities in the Islamic world after the assassination was an illustration of the respect that he commanded. Demonstrators in Mosul chanted: "Do not worry Palestine. Iraq will avenge the assassination of Sheikh Yassin." The leading Shiite cleric of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, described the assassination as "an ugly crime against the Palestinian people". Palestine Authority President Yasser Arafat declared a three-day mourning. Life in the Occupied Territories came to a standstill after the slain leader's body was laid to rest. The frail 66-year-old Sheikh Yassin was a quadriplegic. He needed help in all daily activities and suffered from muscular deterioration, chronic breathing problems and hearing loss. His physical deterioration started after he was involved in an accident while playing football as a child. Sheikh Yassin preferred to live in his modest house, without any security cover.

The timing and the circumstances leading to his killing have only deepened suspicions about the ultimate game plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the Occupied Territories and the region. There are indications that the Bush administration had given its ally, Israel, the green signal to carry out the attack. "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without getting the consent of the American administration, and it must take responsibility for this crime," Hamas said in a statement after the death of its leader.

Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, in one of his first statements after being chosen to head Hamas in Gaza, said the U.S. government was the enemy of not only Palestinians but all Muslims. He held the Bush administration culpable in the assassination. However, the Hamas leadership has reiterated that it will only target Israel.

Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has predicted that the killing of Sheikh Yassin will open a "new chapter". "It moves the conflict from the level of a solvable national conflict to the level of a religious conflict, which by its very nature is insoluble."

In the last week of March, Washington vetoed the United Nations resolution condemning the killing. The resolution had sought to condemn "all terrorist attacks against any civilians as well as all acts of violence and destructions". Almost all the countries in the world, barring a handful, condemned the killing. India's reaction came a little late. On the day the Hamas leader was killed, India was conducting a high-level strategic dialogue with Israel in Tel Aviv. While most countries immediately "condemned" Israel, the External Affairs Ministry, in a statement issued more than two days after the event, said that it was "appalled" by the killing. The diplomatic community has noted that New Delhi has not explicitly condemned the extra-judicial use of force by Israel. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan used stronger language. He "strongly condemned" Israel's action. Similar views were expressed by the European Union and most European countries.

ACCORDING to analysts, Sharon's personal decision to liquidate Sheikh Yassin was connected to the government's plans to evacuate the Gaza Strip. When Sharon first mooted this plan, it prompted a lot of criticism from the hardline elements dominating his Cabinet. His grand plan is to pull out from Gaza and then annex almost half of the West Bank, which lies outside the so-called security wall. By eliminating Sheikh Yassin, he wanted to show to the Israeli public that he was not vacating Gaza under duress. Sharon is also expecting a Hamas backlash to provide him with more excuses to alter the demographic situation in the West Bank in favour of Israel. Influential sections in the Israeli Right argue that any unilateral pullout by Israeli forces from Gaza will only embolden the Palestinian resistance. It is being pointed out that after Israel withdrew completely from Lebanon in May 2000, the second intifada started in earnest. A wave of suicide attacks may once again bolster Sharon's popularity among the frightened Israeli voters.

Sharon's political career has been pock-marked by killings and massacres. A few illustrations will suffice. In October 1953, 69 civilians were killed by soldiers under his command in the Jordanian village of Qibya. His unprovoked killing of 50 Syrian troops on the shores of Lake Tiberius in December 1965, triggered off the 1967 war. The invasion of Lebanon, which was his brainchild, resulted in the killing of 17,000 Palestinians and Lebanese. Another 2,000 Palestinians were killed in Lebanon by the right-wing Christian militia aligned with Sharon in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Sharon's tunnel vision precludes any peaceful resolution of the political and military impasse. Compromise is anathema to him.

According to Patrick Seale, an expert on the region, Sharon follows "a strategy of fear". He wants Israel's enemies to live perpetually in fear. "They must not, even for one moment, think that Israel is weak. No one is immune from physical elimination - neither Yasser Arafat nor the Hezbollah leader Hussein Nasrallah, and certainly not the new heads of Hamas," wrote Seale in the Arabic newspaper Al Hayat.

Israel's Deputy Defence Minster Zeev Boim had issued a chilling public warning to Sheikh Yassin. He said that the Hamas leader was "marked for death - he should hide himself deep underground where he won't know the difference between day and night. We will find him in the tunnels and we will kill him". The Sharon doctrine is no different from the Bush doctrine. Both believe in the unilateral use of force unrestrained by international law or universal opprobrium.

Many observers of the West Asian scene believe that the most important reason for Sharon's decision to eliminate Sheikh Yassin was to negate the chances of a long-term truce being worked between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He had offered peace on a long-term basis to the Israelis on several occasions. His only precondition was that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. His last offer of a truce with Israel was on December 1, 2003. He had told the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram that he was willing to solve the problem with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders. "Let's end this conflict by declaring a temporary ceasefire. Let's leave the bigger issues for future generations to decide." Sharon was aware that Sheikh Yassin was the only personality in the whole of Palestine who could ensure that a peace accord was implemented.

His death may have been expedited by Sharon because of his fear that the Arab summit in Tunis that was to be held in the last week of March was apparently ready to make a peace offer and resume normal relations with Israel on condition that Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders. The Arab summit was cancelled at the eleventh hour owing to serious disagreements on a host of issues. The assassination was a contributory factor to the postponement. The Israeli security services have told Sharon that Hamas is on the retreat after the killing. They have predicted that the organisation no longer poses an obstacle to Sharon's plans of carving out a Palestinian mini state.

Uri Avnery said: "The fate of the state of Israel is in the hands of a group of bankrupt political and military leaders who have failed in all their actions. They have tried to cover up their failure by a catastrophic escalation. This act will not only endanger the personal security of every Israeli, both in the country and around the world, but also the existential security of the state of Israel. It has grievously hurt the chances of putting an end to the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Muslim conflicts."

A former U.S. diplomat who was engaged in the West Asia peace process said that the "real danger" was that the international community was witnessing "the beginning of the end of a conventional diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem".

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