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Implications of Sheik Yassin Killing for Middle East - 2004-03-31


Israel’s assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin triggered violent protests in Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli streets and shopping malls remain nearly empty as people brace for the worst after Hamas leaders vowed revenge and all-out war with Israel. VOA’s Serena Parker spoke with several Middle East analysts on the implications of the Yassin killing for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for the region.

Israeli soldiers in a U.S. made AH-64 Apache helicopter fired three missiles at Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin on March 22. Many analysts say that the killing of the nearly blind, wheelchair-bound cleric and seven others as they left a Gaza City mosque after early morning prayers seriously undermined prospects for a peace settlement in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defended the killing, calling Sheik Yassin a “mastermind of Palestinian terror.” But Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, says the Sheik was very different from Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

“I think what we need to understand here is that Sheik Yassin was considered a moderating voice within Hamas,” he says. “I think what he managed to do was to prevent the more hawkish colleagues in the Hamas movement from fully plunging into an all-out war against Israel. Unfortunately, the assassination of Sheik Yassin, I would argue, has made Hamas more susceptible to hawkish leaders like Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who basically advocate a full onslaught against Israel.”

Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was elected as Hamas’ new leader, told supporters “The Israelis will know no security.” But do they have security now? asks Matthew Levit, senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. By targeting Sheik Yassin and other Hamas leaders, Matthew Levit says the Sharon government hopes to deal a fatal blow to the organization.

“Here there are clearly going to be other people to step into the shoes of the operational commander,” he says. “Others will play the role that Yassin played. But there is no one who can step into the shoes of Yassin as a respected terrorist leader in Gaza – not Abdel Aziz Rantisi, not Mahmoud al-Zahar, not any of these people, and that is going to have an effect on how well the organization functions within itself.”

Israel attempted to assassinate Sheik Yassin last September but failed. According to Matthew Levit, Mr. Sharon decided to try again in the wake of a double-suicide bombing this March at the busy Mediterranean port of Ashdod that killed 10 Israelis.

However, Akiva Eldar, senior columnist and editorial writer for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, believes the assassination was designed to boost Mr. Sharon’s standing in his Likud Party, where he has been under attack for his plan to withdraw unilaterally Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.

“The results for Sharon personally were extremely good,” he says. “The day before the Yassin killing he was under very cruel attack in the cabinet by his own ministers, by Likud ministers, who had some very hard questions for him which he didn’t have answers for. Now the next day when he addressed the Likud faction in the Knesset, he became very popular and he got a standing ovation, and it was a different Prime Minister.”

Akiva Eldar says he could understand, although maybe not justify Sheik Yassin’s killing if he knew that at the end of the day Mr. Sharon would use this act to help moderate Palestinians take control in Gaza. By eliminating extremists, Israel would clear the way for more pragmatic partners. But it looks to Mr. Eldar that the assassination opens the door to radicals bent on revenge. “The question should not be whether Yassin was a good guy or not,” he says, “but whether his replacement, his successor is going to be a better partner for us or not, and I suspect that he won’t.”

The assassination of Sheik Yassin appeared to anger Arabs and Muslims worldwide. Professor Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College says the targeted killing further de-legitimizes Arab rulers in the eyes of their populations because they are unable to stop the bloodshed. It also fuels anti-Western and anti-American sentiment.

“What the Arabs see on their television sets is basically a dramatically different view of what happens in Palestine,” he says. “They see Israeli soldiers mistreating the Palestinians, and yet they do not really hear any kind of reaction on the part of the West, particularly the United States.”

Professor Gerges says the West sees different images, in part because of Ariel Sharon’s success in portraying his conflict with the Palestinians as an extension of the American war against terrorism. But by linking the two, Mr. Sharon is hurting the American effort to combat global terror.

“The assassination of Sheik Yassin not only diverts attention from U.S. initiatives in the Middle East, for example, to foster democracy, to put Iraq on its feet but also hardens Arab and Muslim public attitudes against American foreign policy,” he says. “And I think what is sad about what has happened is that American vital interests are at stake. That is, American public diplomacy received a major setback as a result of the assassination of Sheik Yassin.”

Mr. Gerges says the killing of Sheik Yassin will help the jihadists recruit and radicalize youth. Matthew Levit of the Washington Institute agrees, but doesn’t think Palestinian groups will begin targeting the United States. Following the assassination, Hamas denounced the United States while stopping short of calling for attacks on American targets.

The assassination has thrown the Arab world into turmoil. An Arab League Summit to be held in Tunisia was called off unexpectedly on Saturday, 48 hours before it was to start. Matthew Levit says the Yassin assassination served as a convenient excuse because the Arab leaders were at odds over the question of democratization, urged by the Bush Administration as part of its Middle East Initiative.

“I think many of the participants of the meeting in Tunis are breathing a sigh of relief because they had very little interest in talking about the issue of democratization,” he says. “In general in this region they are looking quite eagerly for other issues to point to in terms of getting their constituencies’ attention and drawing that constituencies’ attention away from the lack of democracy, etcetera. That traditionally has been one of the reasons that the Israeli-Arab conflict has been inflated in the region.”

President Bush wants other Western nations to endorse his call for democracy in the region. However, the Yassin assassination and the Bush Administration’s refusal to condemn it may complicate matters. European leaders, mindful of large Muslim immigrant populations in their own countries, are hesitant to urge Arab regimes to change their way of government.

Europe asks the United States to increase the pressure on Prime Minister Sharon to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians – a move analysts say is unlikely given the Bush Administration’s tacit support of Israel’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

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