Not everyone in Israel was jubilant following Israel’s assassination of the much reviled Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant Islamic group Hamas.
Israel’s Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who voted against assassinating Yassin in the security cabinet last week, warned after the attack that many Israelis could pay with their lives for the assassination.
“I fear we have opened up a cycle here and that many will pay for it with their lives,” Poraz told Israel Radio. “I am afraid that Hamas’s motivation will increase. [Yassin] will become some sort of martyr… a national hero for them and I’m very sorry to say, this won’t prevent Hamas from continuing its activities.”
Leader of the left-wing Yahad Party and former justice minister Yossi Beilin also criticized the assassination, asking, “How many Israelis will have to pay with their lives for this act?” He said the assassination was a “horrendous mistake that will cost Israel heavily.”
This anguished criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to assassinate the most significant Palestinian militant leader to date is not based on naive notions about Yassin.
No one doubts that the elderly and quadriplegic Yassin was responsible for sanctioning and legitimating horrific attacks on Israeli civilians, particularly through his tortured religious rationalizations for the suicide bombings that have rocked Israel since they began in 1994.
But these Israeli critics clearly understand one of the few certainties in this bloody conflict: Israeli assassinations of a senior leader of a Palestinian militant group inevitably result in a rash of suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilians, often within a week. And there was no one more senior than Sheikh Yassin. “Today Ariel Sharon ordered the killing of hundreds of Zionists in every street, city and centimeter of the occupied lands,” a statement by the Hamas military wing said.
This predictable and deadly pattern first emerged following Israel’s assassination of the Islamic Jihad’s local leader Hani Abed in Gaza on November 2, 1994 and then of its founder Fathi Shikaki by Israeli operatives in Malta on October 28, 1995. Each was immediately followed by a wave of suicide bombings. The pattern was solidified when Israel’s 1996 assassination of the Hamas bombing mastermind Yehiya Ayash, known as “the Engineer,” led Hamas to respond with a horrific series of suicide attacks on Israeli buses in the following weeks, leaving nearly 100 Israelis dead and many more injured.
Since then, the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad appear to have adopted a routine policy of responding to civilian massacres and especially assassinations with suicide bombings.
Indeed, this striking pattern has become even more frequent and predictable since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister in February 2001 and escalated Israel’s assassination campaign against Palestinian militant leaders, particularly when the militant groups were involved in negotiating or upholding cease-fires on attacks on Israeli civilians.
The first high level assassination of a senior Hamas political leader came with the missile strike on Sheikh Jamal Mansour on July 31 2001, which put an end to a nearly two-month cease-fire on attacks on Israeli civilians observed by Hamas. Haim Shalev, an editorialist in the Isreali daily Ma’ariv, gravely warned on August 1 that because most consider that “Israel has violated the cease-fire” it should expect a Hamas retaliation. It came in the bloody August 9 attack on a Jerusalem Sbarro pizzeria that killed 15 Israeli’s.
Sharon’s decision to assassinate the senior Hamas militant Mahmud Abu Hanoud on November 23, 2001, just when the Hamas was upholding an agreement with Arafat not to attack targets inside of Israel, resulted in simultaneous suicide bus bombings in Haifa and Jerusalem within a week.
In a widely cited article from November 25 2001, the conservative military commentator for one of Israel’s leading newspapers Yediot Aharanot, Alex Fishman, noted that this assassination had the effect of “shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” He continued that “Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hanoud knew in advance that [a terrorist attack inside of Israel] would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel’s military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation.”
Israel’s assassination of the leading Fatah militant Raed Karmi on January 14 2002 during another cease-fire led the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to deliver its first suicide bombing on January 27, 2002. This group has conducted dozens of suicide bombings since that time.
Writing in Haaretz (January 21, 2002) the Israeli journalist Danny Rubeinstein claimed that “Israel’s assassinations today generate far more damage than the benefits they are supposed to bring…it can be said explicitly this time that Karmi’s assassination has already and directly cost the lives of the ten Israelis who died in last week’s murderous terrorist attacks”
The July 22, 2002 assassination of a founding member of Hamas, Salah Shehada, in Gaza, which also killed 15 civilians, 11 of them children, resulted in a bombing at Hebrew University that killed seven Israeli’s and another suicide bombing a week later. It was widely reported that Israel’s attack on Shehada came within hours of a unilateral cease-fire declaration by both the Palestinian nationalist militia Tanzim and Hamas.
In a scathing August 2, 2002 editorial in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper following the assassination of Shehada in Gaza City, Doron Rosenblum declared that “In short, any four-year-old child who examined this pattern of events would conclude that this government, whether consciously or not, is simply not interested in the cessation of the terrorist attacks, for they constitute its raison d’etre”.
In 2003, the June 10 attempted assassination on the top Hamas political leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi just as Hamas was negotiating a truce with the Palestinian authority as part of the U.S. sponsored Road Map process was followed within 12 hours by a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 16 Israelis.
And many more examples can be added to the list since then.
What the Israeli critics of this latest assassination likely recognize is that not only has Sharon sealed the death warrants for dozens of Israeli’s in the expected attacks to follow, but that he has also systematically derailed any attempts to reduce violence. Assassinations have only served to embolden and empower the militant groups and may have made them even more dangerous.
In effect, Sharon appears willing to sacrifice Israeli lives in order to justify his relentless efforts to colonize Palestinian lands with Israeli settlements and destroy Palestinian society so that they will submit to the crumbs cast their way. Suicide bombings have become a crucial pretext for enabling the brute force and violence needed to achieve these objectives.
Writing in Haaretz newspaper on January 18, 2002, Israeli analyst Uzi Benziman noted that there seems to be “a pattern of Israeli behavior that has recurred since Sharon began running the country: When a period of calm prevails in the confrontation with the Palestinians, circumstances are created that induce Israel to carry out military operation in a manner that renews, or accelerates, the cycle of violence.”
Given Sharon’s track record, it should surprise no one that Sharon ordered the assassination of Yassin at this time.
Specifically, there is no evidence that Yassin ordered or even needed to sanction the most recent suicide bombing, the March 14 attack on the port of Ashdod that killed 10 Israelis. This attack was a joint operation undertaken by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade operatives who were following their predictable policy of responding to the previous week’s Israeli army assaults in Gaza and Nablus, which had resulted in the deaths of 10 Hamas members and 5 Brigades’ members.
But Sharon is currently facing his most severe domestic crisis to date. He is facing serious corruption charges, weekly no-confidence motions in the Knesset, and a revolt from his right wing that considers his initiative for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza to be a capitulation to terrorism. Palestinian activism has also garnered significant local and international opposition to the wall and fence barrier in the West Bank upon which Sharon has apparently staked his career. Such factors must be included in any serious analysis of Sharon’s motivations.
None of this should be taken to exculpate militant Palestinian groups that conduct suicide bombings, who have proven more than willing to seize upon Sharon’s provocations through their myopic preoccupation with revenge to bring untold misery upon both Israelis and Palestinians. Their actions have soured the Israeli public on peace and played right into Sharon’s efforts to justify quarantining them behind the massive wall.
But the time has come for more Israelis and their supporters to join with the growing numbers of Israeli officials, security analysts, and soldiers who agree with the former Israeli Army Chief of Staff and Labor Party candidate for Prime Minister Amram Mitzna (Haaretz, August 31, 2003) that “every liquidation engenders a terrorist attack and more casualties” and that “the policy of targeted assassinations has failed and the time has come to admit it.”
STEVE NIVA teaches International Politics and Middle East Studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He has recently had articles appear in The Seattle Times, Al-Ahram Weekly, Middle East International and other publications. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Israeli violence and Palestinian suicide bombings. He can be reached at: email@example.com.