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A few hours after the Israeli military assassinated Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, I entered the classroom in order to teach my politics of human rights course. Everyone had already heard about the extra-judicial execution, so I asked my students whether they felt safer. The response was unanimous: they all felt more vulnerable.
A day later, Ephraim Halevy, former director of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, stated on Israeli television that in the near future the terrorist threat would certainly increase. It would take a while, he argued, before the situation would return to the level it had been prior to the assassination and that in the long run the threat was unlikely to decrease as a result of the execution.
Considering that Yassin’s assassination will exacerbate the violence in the region and thus further endanger Israeli citizens, one might ask why the government authorized the operation.
Israeli commentator Oded Granot seems to have an answer.
A day following the assassination, he noted that the Hamas and Fatah (the largest party within the Palestinian Authority) were on the verge of reaching a cooperation agreement regarding the distribution of authority in the Gaza Strip. The two major political factions in the Strip wanted to ensure that there would be no internal strife and that joint control would be assumed over the region if Prime Minister Sharon went ahead with his plan to dismantle the Jewish settlements and withdraw Israel’s troops. Israeli officials, Granot added, feared that if such an agreement was signed then the Bush Administration would veto all Hamas assassinations. Israel consequently decided not to take any chances and killed Yassin.
Even if Granot is right, the question regarding the Israeli government’s objective still stands.
One explanation is based on the assumption that Sharon actually intends to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and that he killed Yassin in order to advance this end. This view is informed by three major hypotheses.
First, "Sharon does not want to replicate his predecessor’s mistake." Unlike Israel’s rapid withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which many conceived as an act of defeat and cowardice, Sharon wants to create the impression that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is in no way a result of pressure applied by the Hamas. Accordingly, the assassination is both a symbolic act and an attempt to weaken Hamas’s infrastructure. One may accordingly expect that in the coming months the Israeli military will accelerate its operations in the Gaza Strip.
Second, Sharon hopes that Yassin’s assassination will help him garner support within his own Likud party, both because his popularity is waning and because many of allies are against any withdrawal from Gaza. The execution of the Hamas leader, whose group is responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths, demonstrates to Sharon’s political partners that he is still "attuned to Israel’s security needs and will not hesitate to use all the means necessary to ensure it." The new Sharon is still the old Sharon.
Finally, according to this explanation the attack’s objective was to create chaos in the Gaza Strip so that following the withdrawal internal strife between the Palestinian factions would erupt.
Those who think that Sharon authorized Yassin’s assassination in order to abandon his withdrawal proposal also employ this last point. Sharon, according to this explanation, hopes to use the chaos he has engendered and the violent reaction that will surely follow as a pretence for keeping Israeli troops and settlements in the Strip.
While only the future will tell which explanation is more accurate, Yassin’s assassination has a number of direct effects.
It will certainly lead to a series of bloody attacks against targets within Israel and perhaps even abroad. While the Hamas’s ability to strike against Israelis has in no way been jeopardized, the perpetrators’ will to carry out attacks is surely much greater than it was before the execution.
In addition, the assassination has widely broadened the frontiers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by accentuating its religious dimension. Muslims from Jakarta to Cairo have vowed to avenge the cleric’s death.
While these two effects have been mentioned in the media, commentators have ignored that the Israeli attack will likely deal a harsh blow to the recent emergence of a Palestinian non-violent resistance movement. The three-and-a-half year-old Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifada, began changing its character about two months ago: from a struggle based on violent resistance led by relatively small groups of militants to a massive non-violent grassroots movement.
The impetus for this mobilization is the rapid erection of the separation wall. The protesters use the same techniques developed by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, with hundreds of demonstrators standing or lying in front of bulldozers, chanting songs and waving flags. Although the military has been ordered to disperse the protesters, using tear gas, clubs, and, at times, even bullets, every day in the past weeks more and more Palestinians (alongside a few Israelis and internationals) have joined the ranks. For a moment it appeared that the Palestinians had adopted a tenable strategy which could actually threaten Israel’s occupation.
Yassin’s assassination will probably weaken the non-violent resistance and empower those who favor violent retaliation against Israel. Thus, ironically, Israel’s operation has actually strengthened the legitimacy of Hamas’s military wing.
NEVE GORDON teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University and can be reached at email@example.com.
A different version of this article appeared in In These Times.