MIDDLE EAST: The Assassination of Sheik Yassin

MIDDLE EAST: The Assassination of Sheik Yassin

February 16, 2005 3:59 pm (EST)

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What’s the likely impact of the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin?

Experts say the March 22 killing of Yassin, the founder of the radical Palestinian movement Hamas, will likely lead to increased violence against Israel in the form of retaliation attacks. Israel argues that Yassin’s death will reduce Hamas’ capacity to kill Israeli civilians; experts say it was also intended to build domestic support for a planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. Some experts add that the Israeli missile attack on Yassin--which was widely condemned around the world--has devastated prospects for a peace settlement in the Middle East.

Who was Yassin?

Yassin, 67, was the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas.He was born near the city of Ashkelon, now part of Israel, and moved to Gaza as a refugee after the state of Israel was created in 1948. Paralyzed in a childhood accident, he lived his life confined to a wheelchair.

As a student in Egypt he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a social and political movement that was outlawed by Egypt in 1954. He was arrested by Egyptian authorities in 1965. After returning to Gaza, Yassin had by 1968 become a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1980s, his group was supported by Israel as an alternative to Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). That was a gamble the Israelis came to regret, experts say; Yassin established Hamas at the beginning of the first intifada in 1987.

He was arrested by Israel in 1989 and sentenced to life imprisonment for ordering attacks on Israeli soldiers. But he was released in 1997 by then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in exchange for two agents from Mossad, Israel’s intelligence organization, who were captured in Jordan after a failed attempt to assassinate other Hamas leaders. Israel has tried to kill Yassin before; in September 2003 it dropped a bomb on a building where he was meeting with other Palestinian leaders. Yassin escaped that attack with light injuries.

Is Hamas a terrorist organization?

Hamas is divided into three parts: an extensive network of social organizations, including schools and hospitals, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; a political division that does extensive fund-raising; and an armed militia wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, that carries out suicide bombings against Israelis. However, some experts say the arms of Hamas cannot be separated. "Hamas exists for one reason: to destroy the state of Israel," says Jonathan Schanzer, the Soref fellow at The Washington Institute on Near East Policy and an expert on radical Islamic movements. The U.S. State Department considers Hamas a terror group and does not exempt the social wing of the organization from that designation.

Was Yassin directly involved in Hamas’ terrorist activities?

Middle East analysts disagree. Some claim that Yassin may have only been involved in the non-violent arms of the organization. News reports say Palestinians saw Yassin this way, as a moderate spiritual leader who lived modestly while criticizing corruption in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. However, Israel and many terrorism analysts claim Yassin directly oversaw all of Hamas’ activities, including its violent ones.

What was Yassin’s view of Israel?

Yassin had very clear views against Israel, experts say. Arrested by Israeli authorities in 1984, Yassin said his organization was intent on "carrying out jihad operations against Israel," wrote Matthew Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a March 23 article. In a 1997 interview with The Washington Post, Yassin called suicide bombers who attacked Israelis "martyrs who seek life for themselves after death, and life for their people after their martyrdom." He also spoke of Israel’s destruction as "an expectation in the future." Hamas has traditionally been more adamant about confronting Israel than its rival, Arafat’s Fateh movement. Some experts, however, say that Yassin was actually a moderating influence on Hamas’ young radicals, hardened by years of street fighting against Israeli soldiers. "With Yassin gone, there’s no one left to control Hamas," says Shibley Telhami, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

What was the Israeli justification for the killing?

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon strongly defended it, calling Yassin a "mastermind of Palestinian terror" and a "mass murderer who is among Israel’s greatest enemies." He said the strike was a part of Israel’s war on terror, which would continue "day after day, everywhere," according to news reports. Israeli officials say that in the last three and a half years, Hamas has carried out 425 attacks that killed 377 Israelis.

Do all Israelis support the assassination?

No. Some Israeli opposition leaders, and even some members of Sharon’s government--including Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of the centrist Shinui Party--criticized the killing, saying it will cause more terror attacks in the immediate future. Meanwhile, Israel’s armed forces are preparing for retaliation attacks. Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip and placed the police and military on highest alert.

What was the international reaction?

The attack was widely condemned in the Arab world. Egypt canceled a delegation scheduled to travel to Israel later this month to mark the 25th anniversary of a peace treaty between the two countries. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called the attack "regrettable and cowardly," and Jordan’s King Abdullah called it criminal. European countries also strongly censured the killing, with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw calling it "unjustified" and "unacceptable." European Union foreign ministers, after a meeting in Brussels, released a statement saying, "Not only are extrajudicial killings contrary to international law, they undermine the concept of the rule of law, which is a key element in the fight against terrorism."

What was the U.S. response?

On March 23, President Bush said, "Israel has the right to defend herself from terror," but warned that it must consider the consequences of its actions on the peace process. The day of the attack, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in a briefing that the U.S. government was "deeply troubled" by the event. The United States is in the middle of its own campaign to capture or kill its top terrorist foes, al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; this makes it difficult, experts say, for the United States to condemn the killing of alleged terrorists by others.

Will Hamas’ ability to conduct terror attacks be reduced?

Experts disagree. Israeli officials say the attack was meant to demoralize Hamas and diminish its ability to conduct terror attacks ahead of a planned Israeli pullout from Gaza. "In the long run, the significance of Yassin not being there is going to be more and more evident," said Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, Israeli military spokeswoman, on March 22. But some experts say Israel has weakened, not strengthened, its own security. "Yassin was a spiritual leader," Telhami says. "[Hamas’] capacity won’t be affected at all; in fact, they’ll probably recruit a lot more people."

What kind of retaliation is expected?

Hamas vowed revenge for Yassin’s death. Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a militant doctor who was elected as Hamas’ new leader, told supporters March 23, "The Israelis will know no security ... The door is open for [Hamas] to strike all places, all the time and using all means." Some experts expect a dramatic escalation in violence, with more suicide bombings and possibly assassination attempts against Israeli leaders. Experts say anger at Yassin’s death is also spilling over to include the U.S. government and its support of Israel, although Rantisi has said Hamas would not target Americans.

How could Yassin’s death affect the power balance in the Palestinian terriorities?

Experts say it could strengthen the armed extremists while further marginalizing Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. "Hamas has eclipsed the PA in terms of popularity [in the West Bank]," Schanzer says. Rantisi, the group’s new leader, is widely seen as more militant than Yassin. "Whatever possibility there was of the Palestinian Authority cracking down on terrorism was completely erased by this act," says Henry Siegman, senior fellow and director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.

How does Yassin’s killing fit into Sharon’s current plans to withdraw from Gaza?

Sharon, who currently has a low approval rating in Israel, is under pressure from Israelis to end the devastating suicide bombings that have killed hundreds since 2000. His unilateral disengagement plan--which would withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlements from the Gaza Strip and half of the West Bank--is partly in response to these demands from Israelis, who see no partner to deal with on the Palestinian side. Martin S. Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration, said in a March 19 interview that Hamas would claim an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a victory for its terror tactics; in response, Israel "will be stepping up [its] attacks to show that, in fact, Hamas was defeated and this withdrawal was not in the face of terrorism."

Lebanon is also a historical consideration: "The Israelis are thinking about their withdrawal from Lebanon [in May 2000], which looked like it was [made] under pressure. They don’t want anyone thinking that this time," says Eliot Cohen, professor and director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.

Does Israel have legal authority to conduct "targeted killings"?

Many countries say no. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called the killing illegal and strongly condemned it. In a March 22 statement, Annan stressed that "extrajudicial killings are against international law and [the U.N.] calls on the Government of Israel to immediately end this practice." Ruth Wedgwood, an international law expert, says in a March 24 interview that the tactic could be justified by the doctrine of self-defense in a war situation, if all other options have been exhausted.

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