Another round of violence

March 24, 2004

DESPITE HIS grandfatherly visage and frail appearance, Sheik Ahmed Yassin presided over an organization that seeks the destruction of Israel through a campaign of suicide bombings. But his assassination by Israel's military Monday won't deter the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, nor end its attacks against the Jewish state.

Indeed, Sheik Yassin's death will only inflame the passion of Hamas followers and further yoke the aims of other militant Palestinian groups to the resistance movement's murderous cause. Witness the tens of thousands of mourners at the sheik's Gaza funeral and the masked, armed resistance fighters in attendance.

Israel has assassinated Hamas leaders before -- its chief military operative and a key political strategist come to mind -- but suicide bombers still marched willingly into martyrdom nonetheless.

Israel's intention to eliminate the Hamas leadership is understandable -- it attributes more than 350 Israeli deaths to Hamas attacks since the fall of 2000. But if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's motivation is to settle the score with Palestinian militants, he should be prepared to bury scores more in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Sharon's government may defend its actions by likening Sheik Yassin to Osama bin Laden and its assault on the resistance to America's war on terrorism. It also then must recognize the bloody price of that conviction: America's war on terrorism hasn't spared Spain the carnage of the Madrid train bombings. Nor Saudi Arabia, Morocco or Indonesia its terror attacks.

Monday's attack against Sheik Yassin will have consequences well beyond Israel's borders, further isolating Israel in the region and keeping already wary Arab leaders from working to end the conflict. How could it be otherwise?

In response to the attack, the Bush administration followed a well-worn script. Its exhortation for the two sides to exert "maximum restraint" can be so easily dismissed because the United States lacks credibility among Palestinians and refuses to exert its influence on Mr. Sharon's government.

But as Israel's political and military benefactor, the United States no longer can take cover for its disengagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by saying it had no advance warning of the Gaza attack. Now more than ever, the Bush administration must re-engage itself in this process -- before it's too late.

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