A New Kind of Killing

by Charmaine Seitz | published March 30, 2004

The killing of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, was a new kind of killing, even in the midst of the protracted conflict that began in the fall of 2000 and has claimed some 2,800 Palestinian and some 900 Israeli lives. Viewed by most Israelis as a kind of godfather of terror, in death Yassin has become the personification of all aspects of Palestinian loss—even for those Palestinians who hold no brief for Hamas and its long-term program of Islamizing Palestinian society. The final crippling of his aging and withered limbs evoked the Palestinian innocents who have died; the last silencing of his declarations of resistance dealt a blow to Palestinian national pride. Even many secular Palestinians appreciated Sheikh Yassin for his continual invocation of Palestinian rights to all of historic Palestine, and saw him as an ideological backbone of today's insurgency against the Israeli occupation. Perhaps these sources of popular appeal, more than the sheikh's likely role in authorizing suicide bombings, explain why Israel signed his death warrant.

It was to be expected, then, that after three Israeli missiles struck down Yassin, his two sons and five others leaving a Gaza mosque after dawn prayers on March 22, the outpouring of Palestinian grief would be widespread. Hundreds of thousands participated in the Gaza funeral that day, mourners crowding around the wooden bier to touch it, or perhaps testing the air for the sweet smell said to rise from the swaddled and bathed corpses of those considered to have been martyred for God and country. In the towns of the West Bank, where most Hamas leaders have been arrested by Israel or driven underground, a chorus of Quranic verses issued forth from the minarets of the mosques and burning tires enveloped the streets in black smoke. The Lebanese group Hizballah offered its own salute—a volley of missiles into northern Israel.

But once the three days of official mourning declared by the Palestinian Authority (PA) had passed, life returned to what has come to be called normal in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Shuttered businesses reopened their doors, and the streets once again filled with people. The resumption of quotidian existence seemed to reflect a widespread sense that, the gloating of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the vengeful polemics of Hamas notwithstanding, the assassination of the paraplegic sheikh has changed little in the strategic picture. What Israel has likely done by killing Yassin, the most popular figure in Hamas, is simply to entrench the dynamics that have characterized the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation since late September 2000. The assassination has further marginalized the PA and its improbable pursuit of a negotiated two-state solution, while providing a ladder for the climbing fortunes of Hamas and its politics of armed resistance. It may also stymie yet another initiative that held out the faint hope of a modicum of Palestinian self-determination.

Disengaging the Disengagement Plan

Since December 2003, when Sharon announced plans to "unilaterally disengage" from the majority of the Gaza Strip, possibly dismantling more than a dozen Gaza settlements and several in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority has been at a loss as to how to greet the proposal. On the one hand, the PA cannot oppose any evacuation of settlements or withdrawal from occupied land, since it has been calling for exactly that as the necessary prelude to a comprehensive peace. On the other hand, it was eminently clear that Sharon's plan was being crafted in a manner intended to further humiliate the PA, in keeping with Israel's insistence since the outbreak of the current intifada that it has no "partner" on the Palestinian side.

A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research illustrated further reasons for the PA's ambivalence about the "disengagement" plan. Sixty-one percent of Palestinians responded that they do not believe Sharon is sincere in his stated intention to pull out of Gaza, and instead is only trying to aggravate Palestinian infighting, consolidate Israeli control of the West Bank, scare the PA with the strength of Hamas and, finally, calm the increasing Israeli Jewish fears of losing a Jewish majority inside the borders of Israel. Reports that Sharon will not submit a completed withdrawal proposal for his cabinet's approval until after the US presidential elections in November 2004 add to the suspicions of some that the plan is little but a tactical gimmick.

While the dominant explanation on the Israeli left for Sharon's conversion from settlement advocate to pragmatist is that Sharon suddenly understood that the need to maintain a Jewish majority inside Israel required the abandonment of the Occupied Territories, a historical view suggests a more circumspect interpretation. The territories that Sharon is now working to place on the "Israeli side" of the wall-and-fence complex in the West Bank closely follow the lines of a 1973 map illustrating future annexation of these lands to Israel. Sharon's idea, say some analysts, is to use the barrier conceived by his Labor Party predecessors to isolate Palestinians within disconnected cantons, Gaza being one of these, and thereby fragment the geographical basis of a unified Palestinian national identity. So-called negotiations surrounding the "disengagement" plan, which has yet to be detailed three months after being announced, are giving Palestinians additional pause.

Shades of Balfour

While the United States met word of unilateral disengagement with muted noises of disapproval, by the time Israeli and US officials had met to discuss the plan, the Palestinian Authority was cut out of the process. On the two occasions that US envoys bothered to include chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat on their itinerary, they responded to his queries bluntly, saying that the terms of Israel's withdrawal from Gaza were to be hammered out between Israel and the US alone.

Resigned Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, speaking recently to reporters, gave voice to the bitterness that diplomatic niceties prevent his former colleagues from expressing. "What will happen in the future and [what will be] the guarantees?" he asked. "All of this reminds us of the Balfour Declaration: a promise from those who do not own made to those who do not deserve. What is the place of the US to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians with the Israelis?"

Recent reports suggest that the Israeli-US negotiations are based on principles that bear no resemblance to the prescriptions of UN resolutions for resolving the conflict. Israeli representatives are reportedly pledging to withdraw from Gaza if the US agrees to accept that key West Bank settlement blocs, Ma'ale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, will be annexed de facto to Israel. Another stipulation is that Israel not be required to negotiate with the PA as long as that body remains led by Yasser Arafat. Egypt is being brought on board to rally Palestinian security forces for the job of policing Gaza in the event of an Israeli move. "The only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are happening via the United States and then via Egypt," said one Palestinian official. "That is a very long trail."

"Under Fire"

In the midst of this horse trading, Hamas claimed victory. Not only is Israel fleeing Gaza, the group contends, but Israel cannot guarantee its citizens physical security. On January 14, Hamas' armed wing, the Izz al-din al-Qassam Brigades, sent its first ever female suicide bomber to the Erez border crossing. Faking a handicap, she killed four Israelis, three of them soldiers. On March 6, the military wings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah dispatched three cars to Erez laden with two bombs, only succeeding in penetrating PA lines and killing two Palestinian officers before being summarily shot by Israeli soldiers. Eight days later, two young Palestinians from Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp smuggled themselves into Israel behind a false wall in a shipping container and blew themselves up in the Ashdod port, killing ten Israeli workers. Hamas officials avowed that the shift towards joint operations and away from "soft" civilian targets was intended to demonstrate that Israel's construction of a barrier in the West Bank would not deter attacks (Gaza already has an electrified fence) and that a partial or unilateral withdrawal would not end hostilities. (During this same period, 177 Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops.)

One of the major Israeli military criticisms of the Gaza withdrawal plan is that, in departing the Gaza Strip "under fire," Israel would repeat the experience of leaving southern Lebanon in May 2000, when Hizballah declared that it had ousted Israeli troops by force of arms. Would the weakened PA be able to constrain Hamas? How, the generals have asked, would Israel maintain strategic control of the territory?

Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, anointed on March 28 as the group's new "internal" leader, took offense at the Israeli generals' implications in an interview with the Jerusalem-based Palestine Report. "It is very clear that [these criticisms are] directed at the Palestinian Authority to incite it against Hamas, as if Hamas is preparing itself to carry out a coup against the Palestinian Authority and grab the reins of power. This is a clear call to the Authority to crack down on Hamas, as if they want to say that the Authority's refusal to confront Hamas will lead to Hamas taking control over Gaza." But Rantisi's objections elide the tensions that underlie internal Palestinian relations. With every suicide bombing, Hamas undermines the political base of its stated ally.

Iyad Barghouti, author of two books on political Islam in Palestine, questions the premise that Hamas is indeed vying for control in the Palestinian areas. He says that the Muslim Brotherhood movement, on which Hamas is based, believes that it should not assume power in weak Arab states that rely on outside funding to survive. "They know that one day after taking control, they would be bankrupt," he explains. In Barghouti's assessment, it is enough for Hamas to control the Palestinian street. For Israel's purposes, in any case, the specter of 1.2 million Gazans doing the bidding of Israel's arch-enemy has been a useful public relations tool.

After Yassin

In weighing Yassin's contributions to the Gazan community, Barghouti calls him "the Arafat of Hamas." People asked the sheikh to mediate their disputes; he was close to the common person, Barghouti says. Ghazi Hamad, editor of the Islamist newspaper al-Risala, emphasizes Yassin's pan-Islamic significance. "Sheikh Yassin was a symbol of resistance and dignity, strength and Islam, even [a symbol] of Iraq against the American invasion." On March 22, the pan-Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera broadcast interview after interview with Arab politicians, secular and Islamist, making the same point.

Born in 1938 in the village of al-Jawra in what is now Israel, Yassin was paralyzed in a sports accident in his youth. But the injury did not preclude political involvement. In 1983, Yassin was arrested by Israel on charges of weapons possession and forming a secret organization; he was sentenced by an Israeli military court to 13 years imprisonment. Two years later, he was released in a prisoner exchange deal. By 1987, Yassin and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood had decided that it was time to change the Brotherhood's profile in Palestine and establish a group expressly commissioned with fighting Israel's occupation. The birth of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas, according to the Arabic acronym) coincided with the start of the first intifada. Yassin was rearrested in 1989 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he was released again in 1997 at the behest of Jordan, angered by the botched attempt of Israeli agents to assassinate Hamas figure Khalid Meshaal on Jordanian soil. His release was a public relations coup for Hamas, but he exited prison into a state of turmoil in the Occupied Territories, after a Palestinian Authority crackdown on Hamas and open confrontations between Israel and the PA. One year later, he was arrested by the PA after he demanded that several of its officials resign. Israel previously tried to kill the sheikh in September 2003.

But by all accounts, Yassin was a pragmatist among Hamas leaders. His ability to provide religious justifications for political goals lent him credibility and won him respect. In recent months, he often chose a route that subordinated Hamas goals to the Palestinian Authority, in the name of national unity. Barghouti says Yassin once told him, "If I was offered the seat [of leadership] by President Arafat himself, I wouldn't take it."

His final statements largely concerned the need for a unified Palestinian political plan in the event that Israel does depart from Gaza. "This proposed agreement will focus on the relations between the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian Authority and how to control the Gaza Strip, and to protect the stability and security of the Strip after the possible withdrawal," Yassin said. While the proposal was certainly a swipe at the Authority and its inability to supply "security and stability," the force of the jab was blunted by conciliatory language. In many ways, these are the qualities that have endeared the political network of Hamas to the average Palestinian: a reputation for honesty, humility and commitment to Palestinian cohesiveness, as well as the ability and desire to avenge mounting Palestinian loss.

The question is how Hamas may change under the new Gaza leadership of Abd al-Aziz Rantisi. While the pediatrician and father of six is known as a firebrand, Barghouti believes that the pressures of leadership will tame his style. "At the top of the movement, he must become more diplomatic."

Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University, dismisses any suggestion that Hamas' fortunes will now decline. "Hamas is solid and well-organized. I believe that the popularity of the movement will rise," he says. "If anything, this marks a new era in the conflict, one where talk of a peace process is not valued anymore, and where there is an open period of escalation."

Another open question after the killing of Yassin is whether Hamas will embark on a new front, expanding its operations for the first time outside of historic Palestine. The Bush administration's failure to condemn the missile attack highlighted its policy of including Hamas within its global "war on terrorism," a policy that draws increasing Palestinian ire. "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without the consent of the terrorist American administration, and it must bear responsibility for this crime," Hamas said in a statement released after the aerial strike. "All the Muslims of the world will be honored to join in the retaliation for this crime." According to Israeli analyst Reuven Paz, Yassin was among the Hamas leaders who opposed opening this new pan-Islamist front. Hamas has since backtracked from these statements, denying that it considers American interests a legitimate target. But there can be no mistaking the heightened tension between the US, which has singled out the Palestinian faction, and a popular but internationally isolated Hamas.

Imperious Limits

According to the most recent polls conducted just before the Yassin assassination, Hamas' support in Gaza had risen to 27 percent, alongside support for the secular faction Fatah at 23 percent. Even if the West Bank is included in the sample (including a three percent margin of error), Hamas and Fatah run neck and neck in public opinion.

More interesting is that Hamas' popularity continues to climb, even as support for the deadly suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians that have become Hamas' signature is showing signs of slow decline. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while most Palestinians continue to view the myriad checkpoints that block the roads of Gaza and the West Bank as illegal collective punishment, some have begun to blame the suicide bombings for Israel's tight grip on their lives. Hence, the swing toward Hamas can be viewed, at its heart, as a rejection of the Palestinian Authority, its collapsed peace platform and its nagging failure to initiate significant reforms in governance.

Many within Fatah recognize the critical condition of the secular national movement in the West Bank and Gaza today. For years, Fatah's grassroots has clamored for a share in decision-making, hitching its calls to a wider public demand for government reform and transparency. These calls and the growing instability evidenced in violent outbursts between various localized groups finally spurred Arafat in February to announce a general conference, the first elections and strategizing session to be held in Fatah in 15 years. Younger members are seeking admission to the Fatah Central Council, an 11-member committee through which most important decisions are vetted by Arafat before they are taken to wider leadership bodies. Revolutionary Council member Ahmad Ghneim, a self-described young Turk, says that "this new generation belongs to a new world." While their politics vis-à-vis Israel may be very similar to those of the sitting leadership, their ideas about transparency, civic participation and women's rights, to name a few issues, promise to give a new flavor to the agenda of the faction that once made up the Palestinian mainstream.

But the question remains as to how and where Fatah will gather its members from parts far and wide, in a climate where the Palestinian Legislative Council is unable to meet regularly, and Arafat remains confined by Israeli fiat to his Ramallah compound. Hundreds of Fatah members cannot really converge on Arafat's headquarters. More dubious is the prospect of Arafat meeting them elsewhere; many days before the assassination of Yassin, his guards had installed heavy metal gates on the compound. They refused to open them even for the demonstration that coursed through Ramallah's streets. Ghneim grimaces at the challenge. "I think they chose an impossible option," he says, shaking his head. In practice, Fatah remains bound by the imperious limits set by the Israeli army.

What is to Come

Meanwhile, the Israeli government and Hamas are locked in a death grip. After swearing in Rantisi in a packed Gaza stadium, Hamas' political leadership has ducked underground in expectation of more Israeli assassinations. Sharon's cabinet has stated that more extrajudicial executions are coming. "This is all linked to the disengagement plan," posits Jarbawi. "Israel is doing its best to spur volatility and aggravate the possibility of a Palestinian feud. The only thing [this government] knows how to manage is a conflict, and so they want a conflict."

The Israeli public sits vigilant, waiting for the next Hamas attack. Local assessments are that the revenge Hamas has promised for Yassin's killing will match the crime. If the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine assassinated Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi to retaliate for Israel's missile strike on its secretary-general Mustafa al-Zibri (Abu Ali Mustafa) in August 2001, then Hamas must also retaliate by striking a "high-quality target." Hamas has gone so far as to threaten Sharon himself. The facts of Hamas' limited capabilities and difficulties in even entering Israel will probably mean an attack long in the planning—certainly not to be carried out while Israel is in its current state of high alert.

If, in the meantime, Israel succeeds in eliminating more of the Hamas political leadership, analysts believe that the movement will not die. In the West Bank, for example, Hamas activities have buried themselves deeper in social activist causes and "preparing the mind," a euphemism for the politically motivated religious activities that make Hamas such a force to reckon with. The strength of a religious movement, says Barghouti, is its ability to reinterpret itself. "When Hamas is put under political pressure," he explains, "it can easily escape to the religious playing field, which is huge."

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CORRECTION: Due to an editorial error, the e-mail version of this article said that Arafat's guards had installed heavy metal gates "immediately following the assassination of Yassin." In fact, the gates were installed several days before the assassination.

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