Strange Motives

What was the logic behind Israel’s assassination of the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas?

Neve Gordon

Sheikh Ahmad Yassin’s funeral was a heavy display of Hamas artillery.

Jerusalem — A day after Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was assissinated, the former director of Israel’s intelligence agency stated that the terrorist threat would certainly increase. Indeed, as protests and riots erupted across the Occupied Territories and the Arab world, Israel went on high alert.

Ephraim Halevy, former director of Mossad, argued it would take a while before the situation would return to the level it had been before the assassination and that in the long run the threat was unlikely to decrease as a result of the extra-judicial execution.

The assassination, ordered March 22 by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was opposed by some top officials, including Avi Dichter, head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, because it was likely to lead to revenge attacks.

Considering that Yassin’s assassination will exacerbate the violence in the region and thus further endanger Israeli citizens, one might ask why the government authorized the operation.

Israeli commentator Oded Granot seems to have an answer.

A day after the assassination, he noted that Hamas and Fatah (the largest party within the Palestinian Authority) were on the verge of reaching a cooperation agreement regarding the distribution of authority in the Gaza Strip. The two major political factions in the Strip wanted to ensure that there would be no internal strife and that joint control would be assumed over the region if Sharon went ahead with his plan to dismantle Jewish settlements and withdraw Israel’s troops.

Israeli officials, Granot added, feared that if such an agreement were signed then the Bush administration would veto all Hamas assassinations. Israel consequently decided not to take any chances and killed Yassin.

Even if Granot is right, the question regarding the Israeli government’s objective still stands.

One explanation is based on the assumption that Sharon actually intends to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and that he killed Yassin in order to advance this end. This view is informed by three major hypotheses.

  • Sharon does not want to replicate his predecessor’s mistake. Unlike Israel’s rapid withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which many conceived as an act of defeat and cowardice, Sharon wants to create the impression that Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza is in no way a result of pressure applied by Hamas. Accordingly, the assassination is both a symbolic act and an attempt to weaken Hamas’ infrastructure. One may accordingly expect that in the coming months the Israeli military will accelerate its operations in the Gaza Strip.
  • Sharon hopes that Yassin’s assassination will help him garner support within his own Likud party, because his popularity is waning and because many of his allies are against any withdrawal from Gaza. The execution of the Hamas leader demonstrates to Sharon’s political partners that he is still attuned to Israel’s security needs and will not hesitate to use all the means necessary to ensure it.” The new Sharon is still the old Sharon.
  • According to this explanation the attack’s objective was to create chaos in the Gaza Strip so that following the withdrawal internal strife between the Palestinian factions would erupt.

Those who think that Sharon authorized Yassin’s assassination in order to abandon his withdrawal proposal also employ this last point. Sharon, according to this explanation, hopes to use the chaos he has engendered and the violent reaction that will surely follow as pretense for keeping Israeli troops and settlements in the Strip.

While only the future will tell which explanation is more accurate, Yassin’s assassination has a number of direct effects.

It will certainly lead to a series of bloody attacks against targets within Israel and perhaps even abroad. While Hamas’ ability to strike against Israelis has in no way been jeopardized, the perpetrators’ will to carry out attacks is surely much greater than it was before the execution.

The Islamic group had made veiled threats that it would retaliate against the United States for the assassination but, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, named as Hamas’ new Gaza chief, said the militant group had no plans to attack U.S. targets, while another top official in the organization said it has targeted Sharon for death.

We are inside Palestinian land and acting only inside Palestinian land. We are resisting the occupation, nothing else,” Rantisi told reporters in Gaza. Our resistance will continue just inside our border, here inside our country.”

In addition, the assassination has widely broadened the frontiers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by accentuating its religious dimension. Muslims from Jakarta to Cairo have vowed to avenge the cleric’s death.

While these two effects have been mentioned in the media, commentators have ignored that the Israeli attack will likely deal a harsh blow to the recent emergence of a Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement. The three-and-a-half year Palestinian uprising, known as the second Intifada, began changing its character about two months ago: from a struggle based on violent resistance led by relatively small groups of militants to a massive nonviolent grassroots movement. 

The impetus for this mobilization is the rapid erection of the separation wall. The protesters used the same techniques developed by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, with hundreds of demonstrators standing or lying in front of bulldozers, chanting songs and waving flags. Although the military has been ordered to disperse the protesters, using tear gas, clubs, and, at times, even bullets, every day in the past weeks more and more Palestinians (alongside a few Israelis and internationals) have joined the ranks. For a moment it appeared that the Palestinians had adopted a tenable strategy which could actually threaten Israel’s occupation. 

Yassin’s assassination will probably weaken the nonviolent resistance and empower those who favor violent retaliation against Israel. Thus, ironically, Israel’s operation has actually strengthened the legitimacy of Hamas’ military wing.

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Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. One can read about his most recent book, Israel’s Occupation, and more at www​.israel​soc​cu​pa​tion​.info.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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