Mar 24, 2004 8:11 pm


By killing the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, on March 22, Israel eliminated the most important terrorist leader who has been waging war against it. Yasin always made it clear that he was dedicated to destroying the state of Israel and killing its citizens wherever they could be found. He reaped the whirlwind he had created.

Yasin founded Hamas in the mid-1980s as a radical Islamist group opposed to any compromise or peace with Israel. The organization's Charter is full of hatred against Jews and uses the most antisemitic language. While among Palestinians it engaged in educational and social work to win adherents for its cause--and principally to identify and psychologically manipulate young people into becoming suicide bombers--the group's political tactics were terrorist, intended to kill the maximum number of Israelis.

As a result of his activities, Yasin was jailed by Israel. But Yasir Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Authority who was simultaneously Yasin's main ally and rival, campaigned for his release."I know him," Arafat told Israel."He will call for an end to the violence."

In 1997, during the Oslo peace process, Israel gave Arafat's claim a try. But while Arafat feted Yasin, the Hamas leader made clear his support for war against Israel and opposition to any peace deal. When Yasin was allowed to travel abroad, he went to Saudi Arabia and other countries to raise money for his armed struggle. Even the European Union condemned the actions of Hamas as terrorist.

After Arafat rejected peace proposals in 2000, Yasin rallied to his side. What followed was a 40-month-plus war on Israel using anti-civilian terrorism as its main instrument. The decision to launch and continue this war--and the strategy used--has brought great suffering and hundreds of casualties on both sides. This decision has actually delayed an end to Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, brought the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, and lost an opportunity to establish a Palestinian state.

Was Yasin merely the"spiritual guide" to Hamas and did he lead merely a"political wing" as opposed to a"military wing"? Certainly, the group was not organized along rigidly hierarchical lines. Obviously, Yasin did not plan out specific terrorist attacks in detail. But he did set the policy, sanction the killings, and praised the attacks. Yasin was as much the leader of Hamas and responsible for its terrorism as Usama bin Ladin is the leader of al-Qa'ida and a terrorist. Moreover, the title of"spiritual guide" is also the one generally given to the dictator of Iran and the leader of the Lebanese Hizballah group.

Why did Israel act against Yasin now? There are two main reasons. First, as Israel plans a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip it wants to show that this does not mean a retreat or surrender. To ensure domestic support for the move and to show Palestinian radicals that such a step is not an invitation to escalate terrorism, it is necessary to show that Israel still can and will strike against those attacking it.

Second, Yasin is the only unifying and charismatic leader possessed by Hamas. Without him, the organization is more likely to split and to be incapable of effective political action, though everyone knows it can still carry on terrorist attacks. In large part because of Arafat's disinterest in disciplining his own men, Hamas' power is growing. With Yasin as leader it stood a good chance of taking over the Gaza Strip. Whatever militant slogans, demonstrations, and threats Hamas can flourish in the immediate aftermath of Yasin's death, the group will be weakened by it.

In defending itself during the last three years, Israel has had to deal with the fact that its situation is a very unusual one and hence hard for others to understand. International law is premised on the existence of authorities willing to enforce it. What does a country do if its neighbor not only refuses to stop or arrest terrorists attacking it on a daily basis but actually encourages and supports them? There is no alternative to direct action against such a safe haven.

Equally, international diplomacy generally assumes that any dispute is ultimately resolvable through compromise and negotiation. What does a country do when the other side--Hamas, even if one were to believe that Arafat might ever make peace--openly expresses an intention to destroy it and implements that policy?

Another international assumption is that by targeting terrorist leaders, Israel provokes them to attack. But no such encouragement is needed. The attacks will continue any way and they do so more effectively with a leadership that enjoys immunity from punishment for its deeds.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Israel has tried the route recommended to it by other countries and their various politicians, experts, and media. It spent seven years trying to make a peaceful compromise through negotiated agreement. The result is the existence of the Palestinian Authority as a safe haven which incites, finances, organizes, and permits terrorist attacks against Israel. In an attempt to moderate Hamas, Israel even released Yasin himself, who then became the leader of a more intensive terrorist campaign against it.

Whether or not the killing of Yasin was the right thing to do at this time, it was a step legitimized by the situation which he created.

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