National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 2, 2004

Israel feeds the flame as U.S. stands by

Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin seems terrifyingly predictable. Terrifying because the assassination is likely to trigger more violence in response; predictable because we’ve come down this road before. Where will it end, one wonders. Fighting fire with fire only feeds the flame. What kind of conflagration is building as the Israeli government pursues revenge rather than reconciliation and the Bush administration stands on the sidelines and issues empty calls for “moderation”?

The assassination is deplorable on several counts, not just on the pragmatic grounds that this will scarcely help the peace process but morally as well. Extrajudicial killing violates the rule of law that is fundamental to open and democratic societies. If Yassin was guilty of the crimes Israel accused him of, Israel could have arrested him and tried him in a court of law; it chose not to do this. Instead, it resorted to terroristic actions of its own to communicate its point that terrorism won’t be tolerated. In undertaking the assassination of the paraplegic leader of Hamas, it further eroded its moral credibility, inflamed public opinion in the Muslim world where Yassin was considered not simply a Palestinian leader but a spiritual leader for all Muslims, and ratcheted up tensions in an already dangerously volatile region.

If it seems we’re ignoring Palestinian crimes to focus on Israeli ones, we acknowledge that we hold Israel to a higher standard than Palestinians because Israel is a state with all the resources of a state and with the attendant moral claims and obligations that attach to this. The attacks against Israelis are not coordinated by a state but by disparate groups of individual Palestinians.

Sharon’s gamble that he can wipe out Hamas is just that: a gamble. Many believe the assassination will only increase the recruits to Hamas, siphon off strength from an already enfeebled Palestinian Authority and provide Hamas with greater credibility. It should be remembered that Israel originally supported the establishment of Hamas as a way of weakening the Palestinian Authority. Will this blow to Hamas end up being the final coup de grace for the Palestinian Authority? Since he came to office, Sharon has attempted to destroy the Palestinian Authority. By refusing to deal with moderate secular nationalists as he has, is Sharon simply strengthening the forces of Islamic extremism?

Even if Sharon succeeds in decimating Hamas, one wonders what endgame he has in mind. There will be a lot more death and bloodshed on both sides before Hamas disappears, making the day when Palestinians and Israelis eventually sit down at the table to negotiate that much more difficult.

Some say that by ordering the assassination, Sharon was only providing cover for his pull out from the Gaza Strip. The grim equation involved in killing people while making concessions in order to prove your toughness seems a particularly empty form of rhetoric.

What the assassination underscores is how necessary it is for the international community and the United States in particular to disrupt the dance of death Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in.

The pathetic role the Bush administration has played in relation to Israel and the Palestinians since coming to office is not only discreditable but dangerous. It is lethal to Israelis and Palestinians, 3,000 of whom have died in the last three and a half years while the United States sat on the sidelines, provided the weapons to one side and clucked its tongue over the number of deaths that resulted. It is lethal to American interests. Islamic extremists, among many others in the world, can with good reason point to American policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as unjust, duplicitous and hypocritical. Are we making the world safer for anyone with this policy? Hardly.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 2004

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