All Writings
March 28, 2004

Yassin’s Killing Offers A Possible Turning Point

Both Israelis and Palestinians are embroiled in strategy built on, and fueled by, fallacy and tragic illusion. Hamas' suicide bombings and Israel's target killings offer both sides an illusion of some gain, but ultimately inflict terrible self-wounds. Thus, the assassination of Hamas' spiritual leader Sheik Yassin, however deserving from the Israeli perspective, will do nothing to enhance Israel's security. Yet, even as his killing underscores the failure of both sides to read each other's reality, it may still, ironically, offer a possible turning point in their bitter conflict. Under any circumstances, Prime Minister Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli forces and settlements from Gaza and much of the West Bank is a wise decision. But Sharon's efforts not to repeat the mistake of his predecessor Barak–who pulled Israeli forces from Lebanon "under Hizbullah's gun,"– by accelerating attacks against Palestinian militants resonate only up to a point. Although Israel has the right to retaliate or foil any attempts of violence against it, especially suicide bombings, the killing of Sheik Yassin will neither enhance its security, nor the image that Sharon wants to create surrounding the withdrawal. The eventual evacuation of Israeli forces and settlements from these territories is a given, even if both sides will continue to believe and promulgate that it occurred on their own terms. And it is also a given that the immediate repercussions of Yassin's killing will be to make Hamas a galvanizing force for increasing numbers of Palestinians around which to coalesce, particularly in Gaza, where the power and prestige of the Palestinian Authority, led by Arafat, have greatly diminished.

What Mr. Sharon seems to ignore is that, even though Israel's counteroffensives especially during the past year, have substantially reduced the militants' ability to strike Israel at will, the nerve center of Hamas' operations and that of other Palestinian extremist groups remains in Damascus. For the past ten years, Hamas has greatly benefitted from the Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah axis for funding, protection, training, and weapons. This marriage of convenience will last, as will Hamas' violent attacks, until Syria's yearning to regain the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the 1967 war, is addressed. For the present, the opposite seems to be happening: Syria's President Asad's recent call to resume negotiations with Israel on the fate of the Golan was completely ignored by President Bush and Mr Sharon. Leaving Syria out of the peace process is both a strategic and tactical mistake. Under whatever conditions, and however extensive Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank turns out to be, Palestinian militancy will not cease as long as Syria has a vested interest in promoting violent instability. Recently, thousands of Hamas followers in Ramallah listened to one of their top leaders, Khaled Mashaal–from Damascus, no less–deliver a speech by phone. Mr. Mashaal predicted that Yassin's assassination would be a "qualitative turning point for Hamas" and threatened that his death would be "returned back to Prime Minster Sharon."

That said, Hamas' leaders need to reevaluate the consequences of the second Intifadah and finally acknowledge to themselves that it has shattered the Palestinians' civil and political existence while laying waste their cities, infrastructure, and many of their institutions. Hamas' leaders need now to see that the time has come to move away from the precipice and to a new phase in their struggle, in which political actions and civil disobedience become the main weapons. Hamas must listen to the many Palestinian moderates, including the legislator Hanan Ashrawi and the silent majority of the Palestinian people, who seek an alternative to violence. While in issues dealing with the territories, Hamas may be reluctant to divorce itself from Damascus, its leaders might well recall it was the largely non-violent first Intifadah, erupting in 1987-and, by the way, initially not directed by the Palestinian leadership in Tunis, Algeria–that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1994. Had the negotiating process, following the near-accord at Camp David in the Summer of 2000 continued, it would have already led in all probability to the creation of a Palestinian state. If Hamas turns its back on this history, and persists in seeking Israel's destruction, it will only be sowing the seeds of its own. And if Hamas' leaders turn Yassin's assassination , not into a cause for retribution, which will only invite Israeli to more deadly retaliations and destruction, but seize on it as an opportunity to pursue a political discourse, they will regain the moral high ground in their struggle on behalf of their people. This would also mean their capitalizing on the opening afforded by Sharon's withdrawal plans by stopping all the talk about the second and third stage of their struggle to bring about the elimination of Israel, which will inevitably lead to their own destruction.

For Sharon's plan of a unilateral withdrawal to succeed, he must first end the targeted killing of Palestinians and resort to military responses solely in self-defense. Equally critical, he must begin a quiet dialogue with Syria on the fate of the Golan. The Bush administration, whose approval Sharon seeks in implementing his withdrawal plan, must also insist on these two prerequisites, especially if Mr. Bush does not want to be a party to an election-year debacle in the Middle East.