Removing Yassin changes equation

March 26, 2004|By Barry Rubin

TEL AVIV - A fascinating story has emerged from the televised hearings of the commission investigating 9/11: U.S. officials considered trying to kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but decided not to try.

At the same time, though, bin Laden was planning what would be the terrorist strikes against New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Does this suggest that refraining from killing terrorist leaders in such a situation is perhaps not a good idea? How would Americans feel - knowing what they know now - if they were able to make this choice over again?

"The Clinton administration had as many as four chances to kill or capture bin Laden between December 1998 and July 1999, but all the operations were scuttled because of uncertain intelligence and fears that civilians or dignitaries might be killed," The Washington Post reported Wednesday in a story about Tuesday's commission hearings.

Israel's killing Monday of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin is a parallel situation. With Sheik Yassin dead, the only possible Islamist successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is out of the picture. The prospects of Hamas seizing power after Mr. Arafat's death or Israel's withdrawal from Gaza have vanished.

For more than three years, Israel has been subjected to attempted and successful terror attacks each day by the organization that Sheik Yassin led and directed. He justified these operations publicly before and afterward and ordered his group to reject any cease-fire. This was not a criminal matter but a war of deliberate murder.

There was no hope that the sheik would be deterred or arrested by the governing Palestinian authorities, who cooperated with his group and never stopped its activities or arrested its members. In this context, killing a master terrorist who would not otherwise stop or be stopped was a completely justifiable act.

Mr. Arafat and Sheik Yassin were allies as soon as Mr. Arafat rejected peace at Camp David in July 2000. The current intifada, which began in September 2000, cemented their alliance. Their groups met regularly to coordinate the war and even conducted joint terrorist operations. Hamas' men were immune from arrest or interference from Mr. Arafat's security forces. In this respect, Sheik Yassin's death has changed nothing since there was no prospect for deterrent or judicial action against him.

If Hamas can kill Fatah officials and ignore the Palestinian Authority (PA), this makes it a contender for power. Hamas can win only if Fatah lets it take over by default. In this context, it is doubtful that most Palestinian nationalist leaders, in their deepest feelings, are sorry to see Sheik Yassin dead.

The pending Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip raises the stakes. Who will control that area? Would Hamas be able to use it as a base for carrying out more terrorist attacks against Israel and imposing its dictatorship on the Palestinians who live there? Hamas will be weaker without the sheik, because it is a very fragmented organization; only its spiritual leader could hold it together.

The ascendance of Abdel Aziz Rantisi as Hamas' new leader is good news. Mr. Rantisi is not a strong figure and lacks the charisma and the religious authority to coordinate a serious bid for power in the Gaza Strip or among Palestinians as a whole.

After Mr. Rantisi escaped an Israeli attack last year, he spoke publicly of waging an eternal struggle against Israel. But privately, intelligence sources reported, he started suggesting that a cease-fire might not be a bad idea. While no one should have illusions that Hamas will stop trying to initiate terrorist strikes against Israel, Mr. Rantisi's elevation will not make it a tougher organization.

The key factor opening the door for Hamas to bid for power is the purposeful self-paralysis of Mr. Arafat. Despite the dire straits of the Palestinians, Mr. Arafat is happy with the existing situation. He continues his war against Israel despite the economic collapse and military defeat of his people brought about by his policies. Nothing makes him want to change course, and it seems conceivable he will not shift strategy again in his lifetime. He revels in chaos.

Mr. Arafat, as many Fatah leaders know, is responsible for the declining fortunes of his organization as well as those of his people. By refusing to take strong action against Hamas, stop terrorism or rein in the thuggish activity of militias waging battle against Israel while despoiling their own people, he is discrediting the PA, Fatah and the nationalist cause in general.

Thus, at the very moment when Fatah and the PA need to bolster their unity and decisiveness, they are being sabotaged by their own leader. Mr. Arafat's departure from the scene cannot be too far off. How will they manage in his absence or find a successor if they are more divided than ever?

If Hamas had a strong leader in Sheik Yassin, the sharp escalation of terror against Israelis and Islamist dictatorship over Palestinians would be far worse than even the current dreadful situation. Palestinian nationalists - and Arab leaders who don't want another Islamist regime in their midst - know this.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel.

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