Mar 30 2004

The Yassin Era

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

There is no doubt that Sheikh Yassin will be remembered for some time for his role in creating and leading the Islamic Hamas movement in Palestine . Yassin has taken a relatively weak branch of the Egyptian founded Muslim brotherhood and made it a power to reckon with. In order to do that, he had to deviate from the traditional political mode of the Brotherhood. The Muslim brotherhood in most Arab countries is relatively moderate and usually refrains from using arms against the ruling powers.

Yassin’s idea was to give the movement some recognition by stepping outside the usual work of religious awareness and philanthropy by moving more into resistance activities. Hamas which stands in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement first appeared during the first intifada. By the second year of the intifada, the Israelis who at one time was hoping that the Islamists could be an alternative to the PLO realized that the movement was getting out of control. Four hundred of its members were deported to South Lebanon . This was a terrible Israeli mistake. In South Lebanon , the 400 activists were the focus of the Arab and international media as well as the censuring of the UN Security Council. The deportation also allowed key members of the movement to connect with the Lebanese Islamic resistance. Among those deported that became well known among Palestinians was Dr. Abdel Azziz Rantisi a pediatrician who quickly rose to become the spokesman of the deportees.

Under international pressure the Israelis were forced to allow the Palestinians Islamists back to their homes. This meant gave new life to the movement and introduced a new weapon, suicide attacks.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 placed the radical wings of the Islamic movement in trouble but the movement was saved from extinction shortly thereafter when a Jewish settler decided to shoot at Muslim worshippers in Hebron killing 29. The Palestinian territories erupted in anger, but to many people the strongest response came from Hamas who carried out a suicide attack against Israelis.

As peace negotiations went up and down so did Hamas. No leader emerged for the movement until the Israelis botched up an assassination attempt against the head of the political bureau of Hamas in Jordan Khaled Mashal. The Jordanian security forces caught two Israeli spies who tried to poison Mashal and threatened the Israelis that they needed to immediately provide an antidote to save Mashal’s life and they needed to exchange the two Israeli spies for sheikh Yassin, who had been in an Israeli jail.

Yassin’s release gave the movement a major boost and from then on and until his assassination on March 22 became a symbol for the Islamic movement. Although he has not had an official operational position, his opinion is known to have a lot of weight. Leaders close to the Islamic leader consider him a moderate among the Islamic movement. He was behind a three month hudna or truce with Israel and he was publicly quoted more than once calling for a restriction of the attacks against to the occupied areas. But almost every time that he has made such a public call, Israeli security forces have assassinated one of Hamas leaders thus rendering the call for a truce useless.

In the past few months and as Ariel Sharon was on the record as in favor of a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza , a question arose as to what would happen once the Israelis leave. One was the way Palestinians would interpret this withdrawal. The fear was that Palestinians would consider it a victory and would continue attacking Israel until it similarly left the West Bank . The second problem expressed by the US and others was the worry that Hamas would fill in any vacuum that would be created once the Israeli army withdraws.

To counter the first problem, Israeli troops carried out an unusually aggressive campaign against Palestinians in Gaza . They wanted to leave a clear signal that once they leave, they will be leaving from a position of strength rather than weakness. In February alone 27 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army. In March and prior to the attack on Sheikh Yassin 42 Palestinians were killed in Gaza .

Refusing to go down quietly like lambs taken to the slaughter, Palestinians responded in two ways. They wanted to remind Israelis that Palestinian blood is not cheap and at the same time they wanted to send a clear message that they are willing to deal positively with the idea of Israel leaving Gaza .

When the killings of Palestinians in Gaza became too much to take, two Palestinians from both the Islamic Hamas movement and Aqsa Brigades who are close to the secular Fatah movement (headed by Arafat) carried out a suicide attack against the Israeli southern port of Ashdod killing 10 Israelis.

The joint attack between the Islamists and the mainstream Palestinian movement was meant to send a political message. This message was also publicly expressed by no other than Sheikh Yassin who said that the Islamic movement has not plans to challenge the Palestinian Authority in Gaza once the Israelis leave.

This represented a problem for the Sharon government who felt that their worst dreams were becoming true. Palestinians were refusing to lay down quietly allowing the Israelis to have the last word and at the same time the moderate voices seemed to be winning within Hamas as they seem to be cooperating with the Palestinian Authority in making sure that when the Israelis leave no chaos will take place.

Killing a person like Yassin obviously required, and as later was confirmed, the approval of the prime minister of Israel . But more than that it required the approval or at least the lack of opposition from the American government. The Bush administration had been very supportive of Sharon and his get tough actions against Palestinians because they mirrored what America wanted to do in its war against terror.

Sharon who is due to visit Washington in April to sell the Americans his plans to withdraw from Gaza, knew that he needed to be able to deliver on his plans and he needed the approval of many of his right wing partners who were starting to attack him as being soft on Palestinians by agreeing to withdraw from Gaza without an agreement. All these problems would be solved by the assassination of Yassin.

No doubt that the plan to kill Yassin had been drawn up for some time. What was needed was the right timing and the proper political conditions. The conditions from Sharon ‘s point of view seemed right, the timing came in when after the joint attack in Ashdod .

The violent death of Yassin has removed a strong and respected leader who can say no to radicals within his group. Now with Abdel Azziz Rantisi taking over the movement in Gaza , it is unlikely that a moderate point of view will be given a chance to appear. Rantisi has been opposed to any truce with the Israelis, thinking, as the experience of South Lebanon has shown, if there is enough attacks against Israelis, they will leave on their own. The record of the past few years seem to favor the strategy of Rantisi. The unfortunate reality is that if true, this will mean many more Palestinians and Israelis will be killed and injured before people of good will shall interfere and stop this senseless bloodshed. Now it seems the only way to stop the cycle of violence will be the direct interference of a major western power, most likely the US . But in a hotly fought presidential election year, few expect that such US interference is likely until after the November poll. Until then we have to be ready to expect more of the same.

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