Israel: Why Sharon May Lose This Gamble

Will the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin make Israel and the world safer? That's the question officials in Jerusalem and Washington are contemplating following the Israeli missile attack on the spiritual leader of Hamas, the largest Palestinian Islamic group, on a Gaza street on Mar. 22.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who gave the green light for the killing, is gambling that wiping out Hamas' top leaders will cripple the organization. If he is right, Hamas' ability to send suicide bombers to Israel would decline. Sharon is also trying to ensure that the militant Islamic group, which is blamed for some 400 Israeli deaths, won't seize power in Gaza after Israel's contemplated pullout. Sharon has been planning for the dismantling of up to 21 settlements and the likely withdrawal of troops, in a bid to reduce Israeli casualties.

Into the Sea

But some experts are skeptical these tactics will work. Indeed, Sharon may be squandering the potential benefits of withdrawal. "In the past three years, Israel has killed or captured 300 of the top Hamas leaders, and this has done very little in the way of reducing attempted suicide bombings," says Reuven Paz, an analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center, a think tank near Tel Aviv. Bombings are in fact down, but Israel says alerts are at record levels.

The assassinations may well produce an even more violent organization. In the Hamas context, both Yassin and Ismail Abu Shanab, another leader killed by the Israelis last summer, were relative moderates -- agreeing to a temporary cease-fire by Palestinian forces last year. Yassin's interim replacement, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, is an uncompromising hard-liner determined to sweep the Israelis into the sea. Security experts are worried that Rantisi could now expand Hamas operations. Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, warns that Yassin's killing could lead to the "Islamization of the whole conflict and the bringing in of al Qaeda."

Having such a radical rival in Hamas makes it harder for Yassir Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei to control their constituents and cut a deal with the Israelis. Many Palestinians hold Hamas in higher regard than Arafat's cronies, whom they condemn as corrupt and ineffective. Hamas leaders are seen as men who live modestly and put their lives on the line. Yassin epitomized that ethos -- an ascetic in a wheelchair who lived in a poor neighborhood.

Still, his death marked how far he had strayed from his original goals. When Yassin founded his Islamic Center in Gaza in the 1970s, he shunned violence, devoting himself to Islam and charity work. At first he won the blessing of the Israelis and the scorn of Palestinian activists, but as the atmosphere grew ugly he began to praise if not plan Hamas' attacks.

Now his assassination has enraged not only Palestinians but much of the Islamic world. Impotent as much of that rage may be, it should concern the U.S., which had hoped Sharon's withdrawal from Gaza would dampen violence. The U.S. needs to have the Islamic mainstream on its side if it is to win its struggle against militants. That cause is unlikely to be aided by the killing of a man that many Palestinians regarded, however foolishly, as a saint.

By Stanley Reed in London and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem, with Stan Crock in Washington

Edited by Rose Brady

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