Much has been written about the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin when US supplied helicopter gunships fired rockets at his wheelchair in the pre-dawn hours of March 21 while exiting a mosque in the destitute Sabra neighborhood of Gaza city. Yet despite the wide media attention the assassination received, the gravity of what’s at stake in Yassin’s killing has predictably failed to be clinched. Though misrepresentation by Western media of Israel’s repression of Palestinians throughout the course of the Al Aqsa Intifada is the norm rather than the exception, the case of the Yassin assassination is notable because it aptly illustrates how Israeli policies are cunningly tailored to achieve Israeli and US objectives, while complete mystification shrouds the intentions and repercussion of what is at stake.
Understanding the Yassin Assassination
First, it is essential to dispel what the killing of Yassin was not. The Bush administration accepted the assassination beneath rubric of Israel’s “right to defend itself”. In so doing, it consented to the justifications of the Israeli government, which in the words of Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom likened Yassin to “the godfather of the suicide bombers” who represented a local instantiation of Israel’s very own “war against terror”. In an extended interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Shalom tried hard to fit the Yassin assassination precisely into this discursive logic: “We have a global battle against this terrorism.[â€¦] Those extremist organizations, like al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the others, are motivated by an extreme ideology, to change the world. They are fighting those countries that share the same values as we share, of democracy, of freedom, of human rights, of rule of law [â€¦]So it’s very, very simple [â€¦] That’s why we should do everything we can, because we are protecting our people by fighting against this global phenomenon that is threatening the entire world, and all the democratic countries.”
This line of justification has gained increased mileage by the Israeli political establishment in wake of the September 11th attacks, the Bush administrations endeavors since then in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most recently after the Madrid train bombings. But the reality of the matter is that such justifications (which promote the rote dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims, while completely whitewashing US imperialism in the Middle East) have been promoted by the Israeli establishment for years. As Palestinian intellectual and political leader Azmi Bishara (who is also a member of the Israeli Knesset) has noted, Israel’s central doctrine has always been “to divide the world into ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-terrorists’. It always wanted to divide the world this way so that it could be on the side of Russia, India and the United States together. ‘Everybody is fighting terrorism’. This enables Israel to break its isolation. Israel is on one side and the entire Arab world is on the other. [â€¦] The fact that the United States accepted the division of the world – between “terrorists” and “those who fight terrorists” – was a breakthrough for Israel internationally, as well as in the United States itself.” (Between the Lines, Interview with Azmi Bishara, #23/24 September 2003)
Of course the “terrorism discourse” obfuscates any attention to the real issues of the ‘Palestinian-Israeli’ conflict, including the Israel occupation of 1967 occupied territories, the exclusivist nature of the Zionist state and its explicit rejection of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes for the past 55 years.
It is also important to clarify the issue of Yassin himself, and more broadly speaking the Hamas movement. Yassin, as a founder of Hamas, was a symbolic leader of a broad political and social stream within Palestinian society that represented steadfastness and defiance for the thousands of Palestinians (particularly the impoverished and the refugees in Gaza), who refused to give up their rights to self-determination and for return, despite the repeated political and military defeats of the centrist Fateh-led PLO to achieve these rights. Hamas’ growth must also be seen in light of the sense of betrayal wide swaths of Palestinian people felt due to the PLO’s signature to the Oslo accords. It was these accords which over time, revealed themselves to have legitimated Israel’s settlement policies beneath the guise of a ‘peace process’, while instituting a Palestinian Authority for exclusively repressive means against any dissent to that process. This of course is to say nothing of the widely known secret that Israel encouraged the growth of Hamas in the late 1980s as an Islamic alternative to the secular PLO.
Neither Yassin nor Hamas have anything to do with the Afghan Arabs, or any Huntingtonian clash of civilization. Though activists in Hamas may have used similar discourse in the past (always to the determent of Hamas’ cause), Yassin himself was known to be a moderate force within Hamas, confining his demands and that of the party to that of the Palestinian political center – a full withdrawal to 1967 lines, in exchange for a cease-fire. At the same time, Hamas, like all other Palestinian factions – including the grassroots of the Fateh movement – also refuse to concede rights and claims to pre-1948 Palestine, where the refugees which compose Hamas and other Palestinian national movement factions originate from. Though it is usually ignored or discredited in the West as some form of ‘historical whining’, the fact of the matter is that 530 Palestinian villages were destroyed and depopulated during the establishment of the state of Israel, and 80% of these refugees (which today number 5 million people) still reside within 100 kilometers from their homes – about an hours drive. Their inability to return, and the enormous suffering they have born throughout the course of the past 55 years, continues to fuel the national movement, with Hamas being no exception. In fact the protracted denial of these rights, and the extreme asymmetrical military conditions in place on the ground have in part resulted in the emergence of the tactic of suicide bombing – a method Hamas may be famous for, but neither first initiated, or is unique to using amongst Palestinian factions.
This was confirmed in an interview with Sheikh Yassin conducted over a year before his death by prominent Israel journalist Amira Hass. When asked what the purpose of the present Intifada was, Yassin responded as follows: “The primary purpose of the Intifada today is to expel the occupation from the 1967 borders. The future will decide the fate of what remains of the soil of Palestine.” When Hass pushed Yassin on how “the terrorist attacks inside Israel are strengthening the view of Israelis that you [Hamas] want to “throw them into the sea”, Yassin revealed the pragmatism and centrist positions he held: “No Palestinian says that we want to throw the Jews into the sea. The Palestinians always say that they want to live on the lands of our forebears and that all of us – Muslims, Jews and Christians – will live together in the spirit of democracy. But the problem is that the Jews don’t want to give the others their rights. They want to establish a racist regime. [â€¦] We have never imposed our principles, nor do we want to dictate them with force. There is no dictate. To each his own religion in a state that will respect all human rights.” (Balance of Pain, Amira Hass, Haaretz April 2, 2004)
Palestinian Resistance and Sharon’s Unilateral Withdrawal from Gaza
When one begins to ‘unspin’ the Yassin assassination, one realizes its deep connection to the question of the Gaza Strip as a whole and the unilateral withdrawal plan Sharon has promised to implement in the coming months. This in turn is related to the Intifada and Israel’s strategies both to suppress the uprising, and to fulfill wider Zionist strategic objectives while doing so.
Though opposition to an Israeli presence in Gaza predates this Intifada (recalling Yitzhak Rabin’s infamous statement wishing that Gaza would ‘just sink into the sea’), the resistance waged from Gaza has only exacerbated this demand within Israeli society and political establishment. As former right-wing Likud MK Moshe Arens described it in a recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, well before the Yassin assassination: “Most of the public doesn’t seem to care what you call it – separation, unilateral withdrawal, you name it; let’s just get out of there, kit and caboodle. And no wonder. What are we doing there in the first place?” Arens continues “A few hundred Israeli settlers making a living by employing Palestinian and foreign workers; is this Zionism? Wedged in among over more than one and a quarter million Palestinians who are living in poverty and squalor in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. And why burden the Israel Defense Forces with providing protection for these isolated settlements? Should we not have left there a long time ago?” (Tunnel Vision, Moshe Arens, Haaretz February 17, 2004)
The need to withdraw from Gaza is underscored within the context of the fierce resistance which has been waged in the Gaza Strip throughout the course of the past three and a half years. All Palestinian national factions (with Hamas and Fateh at the forefront) have engaged in a concerted guerilla campaign in the Gaza Strip against the Occupation army and settlers since the Intifada began. With the exception of the recent bombing of the Ashdod port, this battle has been almost exclusively focused within the confines of the Gaza Strip itself. And despite the fact that its efficacy vis-Ã -vis killing Israeli soldiers and settlers has been quite low (less than 100 Israeli casualties in Gaza, in comparison to about 800 Israelis killed from attacks waged within or from the West Bank), the resistance campaign waged from Gaza takes place with much higher regularity (essentially daily) and on a much higher level of sophistication than those from the West Bank. In fact, the IDF Southern Command recently disclosed that the number of roadside bombs that exploded in the Gaza Strip in 2003 is equal to the number that exploded throughout the entire 18 years of Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon. Furthermore, the homemade bombs are improving, as are the anti-tank shells and increased 80% in frequency between 2002 and 2003. Haggai Huberman a correspondent for the Gaza settlers recently wrote the situation in Gaza is “war in the full sense of the word, even though this has not yet trickled down to the public consciousness. [â€¦] Even the top IDF brass in the Gaza Strip say that the most rational explanation for the lack of casualties on our side [in Gaza] is Divine Providence… Just as in the case of Lebanon, it is taking a long time for the public to understand that a real war is going on in Gaza. A unilateral retreat as planned by Sharon is not just ‘retreat under fire’ – it’s actually ‘deserting the battlefield in the height of battle.’ (IDF Chief Of Staff: Retreat Will Not Solve The Problem Arutz Sheva Mar 08, 2004)
Sharon’s plan of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza is thus a form of tactical reorganization of the Israeli occupation that seeks to pull out a majority of the settlements, while still maintaining Israeli strategic objectives of securing the hermetic sealing of the Gaza Strip and particularly its southern border with Egypt. The reorganizing of the occupation itself – which essentially consolidates the Gaza Strip as the world’s largest open air prison – would not however have been necessary were it not for Palestinian resistance, which undertook enormous sacrifices in doing so, particularly in the Gaza Strip where Israel military positions are virtually impregnable and Israeli raids, (which are legitimated by the continuation of Palestinian resistance), are so destructive. In the border town of Rafah alone, over 10,000 people have become refugees from their own UN mandated refugee camp during the past 3 years as a result of these raids and Israel’s subsequent house demolitions.
This has caused somewhat of a conundrum for the Israeli army and political establishment as it contradicts with what has been up until this point Israel’s strategy in attempting to suppress the Intifada; namely, to “burn into the Palestinian consciousness” their own defeat, and that “terror will reap no rewards” in the words of Israeli Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon. In fact, only eight months ago Ya’alon himself spoke of Israel’s imminent victory in the conflict. Discussion of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza – even if the withdrawal is tactical – directly contradicts Israel’s strategy. As noted in a recent article in the Israeli daily Maariv: [M]any senior officers believe that this view [of imminent victory] is now outdated, in the light of PM Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal plans. In their opinion, after any withdrawal from Gaza it will be impossible to claim that the Palestinians have not achieved anything through terror. [â€¦]According to one senior officer, the ability of Palestinian society to sustain Israeli pressure has proved much greater than was first estimated, and is evidently even stronger than Israel’s ability to withstand terror. (“Officers at General Staff: No more talk of victory over terror” Amir Rappaport Maariv March 9, 2004 )
Furthermore, the unilateral plans bring back painful memories of the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon at the hands of Hizbullah guerillas. A Haaretz article published before the Yassin killing noted how “[t]he IDF, meanwhile, is haunted by the shame that attended Ehud Barak’s hastily ordered pull-out from Lebanon. Key generals are fiercely determined to avoid a reprise of the giddy Islamic militant celebrations [sic] of that withdrawal in May, 2000, when Israeli forces were portrayed as having left with their tails between their legs, humiliated by guerrillas.” (Sharon’s do-or-die Gaza plan – or is it do AND die? Bradley Burston, Haaretz March 10, 2003.)
This connection has not been lost to Palestinian resistance groups themselves. Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip and a five time survivor of Israeli assassination attempts himself, recently released an extended audio recording in which he celebrated the victories of Palestinian resistance (of all factions – not just Hamas) in bringing about the planned withdrawal from Gaza. “The criminal Sharon was elected to smash our resistance in 100 days. But now the man who once said [the isolated Gaza settlement of] Netzarim was just like Tel Aviv, is planning to withdraw from Gaza without anything in return.”
Faced with this predicament, Sharon ordered the Yassin assassination attempting to silence his critiques within the army and the Likud, while framing the Gaza withdrawal as an act of pragmatic choice, rather than as anything forced militarily upon Israel by Palestinian resistance. “The message of Yassin’s assassination is clear: “We are not suckers.” It is meant to prove that Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip is not a reward for terrorism.” (A tactical victory in a PR war Aluf Benn, Haaretz March 23, 2004.)
Larger Objectives: What Israel Hopes to Accomplish
But it doesn’t end there. Sharon cunningly understood what the significance of killing Yassin would mean vis-Ã -vis Palestinian resistance. This was openly acknowledged in a remarkable article by Shlomo Gazit, a former colonel in the Israeli army and former head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, and which exposes Israel’s intentions. “Imagine we had woken up on the morning of March 21 to the news from Gaza that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had died overnight of a heart attack. I think the first people who would have been sorry to hear the sad news would have been the members of our security cabinet, or at least the ministers who voted for a military assassination, just to see the sheikh slip out of their hands.”
Gazit continues: “Let’s admit it. Israel did not operate in Gaza with the purpose of settling accounts with Ahmed Yassin. Israel wanted a “mega attack” and natural death would have disrupted the plan. [â€¦] Israel chose by its own initiative to raise the strategic bar in the terror war between us and the Palestinians. And for what? For a long time we have been searching for the Palestinian mega-terror attack. And that search became a self-fulfilling prophecy. [â€¦]Was there really no one at the cabinet table who pointed out the idiocy of committing the assassination two weeks before Passover?” (“An action without thought” Shlomo Gazit, Maariv March 29 2004)
As of the writing of these lines, the fabled “mega-attack” Israel has “long sought” is yet to materialize. Whether it does or not is a question Palestinian militants will likely soon answer. But irrespective of what form it takes, it is important to understand why Sharon sough such a “mega-attack” in the first place and what it will provide him justification for doing if it does.
There are two main axis around which Israeli plans revolve:
First, the escalation of events on the ground will enable Israel to up the ante of what is possible regarding the consolidation of longstanding Israeli strategic military and political objectives. This is nothing new, as Sharon has consistently used the Israeli repression of the Intifada to not just squelch resistance (as though it were a task of ‘counter insurgency’) but to fulfill wider and larger strategic Zionist objectives that include destroying the socio-political and economic fabric of Palestinian society, and to weaken and destroy any centralized national movement. On the ground, it includes consolidating the ‘final map’ Israel will unilaterally impose upon the Palestinians, which essentially will be composed of the open air prison of Gaza, and the smaller isolated versions in the main West Bank cities, with the rest being annexed to Israel. That is why construction of the various walls (370 miles in total length) continues unimpeded. It is also important to emphasize that these future cantons to be erected (on no more than 40% of the West Bank) were facilitated by the settlement policies of both Likud and Labor governments since the 1967 occupation began, with the critical window of settlement expansion taking place during the Oslo years when the number of Israeli colonies doubled. What we are thus witnessing is the final stages of a long plan, which has its roots in the Alon Plan, determined immediately after the 1967 occupation.
Practically speaking, Israel will seek to accomplish very specific goals. First and foremost, Israel will seek to strike a devastating blow to political and military personnel, so as to massively weak the national movement’s capacity and desire to resist. Evidence of such plans was already leaked to the Israeli media, just three days before the assassination of Yassin. On March 17, Haaretz reported that large numbers of IDF troops were deployed to the outskirts of the Gaza Strip, “awaiting orders to begin operations in Palestinian Authority territories”. It also reported that “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ordered IDF officers and Shin Bet security service officials to act without limitations against top figures from all terror organizations. Under this new policy, all leading figures from the organizations can be targeted.” In so doing, Sharon adopted the IDF’s recommendation of “making the organizations pay a stiff price” on the Gaza Strip before Sharon’s separation plan is enacted.” (“IDF masses troops near Gaza; PM orders hits on terror chiefs” Amos Harel, Aluf Benn and Arnon Regular Haaretz, March 17 2004.) The name of this planned offensive (“Operation Continuing Story”) was even leaked to the settler radio station Arutz Sheva on March 17, and reportedly “could be Israel’s largest anti-terror offensive since Operation Defensive Shield almost two years ago.” According to Arutz Sheva, in a meeting held on March 16 between Sharon, Defense Minister Mofaz, Chief of Staff Yaalon, and GSS Chief Dichter, it was determined that . “We will not leave Gaza with our tail between our legs, like in Lebanon”. (IDF Begins Operation “Continuing Story”Arutz Sheva 17:50 Mar 17, 2004)
The existence of a mass assassination plan was also confirmed by Amos Gilad, coordinator of military operations in the Occupied Territories, who noted on Israel’s television Channel 10 that the assassination of Yassin marked the beginning of a campaign which will span the next seven months and which aims at killing 70-80 key military and political leaders in Gaza.
In a secondary manner, Israel will no doubt attempt to finalize the map vis-Ã -vis the border city and refugee camp of Rafah, seeking to raze what remains of Palestinian houses and shops 500 meters from the border. Israel has consistently demolished houses on a daily basis in Rafah since the Intifada began, and will seek to accelerate this process if ‘war-like’ conditions ‘happen to arise’. Already at least 800 homes have been fully demolished in Rafah as Israel attempts to erect a free-fire buffer zone along the Egyptian border, and where Israel will continue to maintain a presence even after the ‘unilateral separation’.
Second and most importantly, the Yassin assassination and the explicit Israeli attempts to harvest a ‘mega attack’ gain added significance in the post- September 11th world, and importantly, in the post-Madrid bombing world. That is because it marks a significant step in Israel’s consistent attempts to permanently blur the lines that separate between legitimate resistance to US imperialism and Israeli colonialism, and what it has defined and decried as Islamic terrorism that in the words of the Bush administration, ‘hates us for who we are, and the freedoms and values we stand for.’
As every Israeli leader before him, Sharon understands that Israel’s strategic interests lie with those of the US, and servicing and facilitating those interests in the Middle East and the world at large. In that regard, the increased calamity and carnage Israel has already ushered onto the scene by killing Yassin, seeks to thicken this ambiguity of what is and is not legitimate resistance. The thicker the fog, the more room of maneuverability both Israel has with the Palestinians, and the US has in Iraq, and elsewhere. The deeper American roots are in the Middle East, the more leverage the US will have in the future with its global economic competitors. It is a cunning and cynical manipulation that aims to confront the Western (particularly American) audience with a “war of no choice”, between forces representing principles of ‘civilization’, against and an inhuman blood thirsty enemy that exudes a genetic hatred for ‘Western values’.
In these fleeting moments before the storm, one is forced to wonder who out there is willing to read the writing on the wall, while equally pondering what the price of not reading will mean.
Toufic Haddad, April 2, 2004
Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian American activist and writer who edits the radical journal Between The Lines, published from Jerusalem and Ramallah. He is also a frequent contributor to the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at [email protected]