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Killing of Yassin a turning point

Israel's disengagement strategy aims to disable Hamas before pulling out of Gaza.

By Ilene R. Prusher, Ben Lynfield / March 23, 2004


The assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin Monday as he left morning prayers marks a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and the end rhetorically and practically to the peace process.

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The death of the wheelchair-bound cleric, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas movement, is also likely to lead to a dramatic upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, analysts say.

"The [peace] process has been dead for a long time, but talk about it continued by the Americans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians. Now even the talk about the peace process will be put to rest for a period of time," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah.

More than 200,000 Palestinians gathered Monday for funeral procession of the 67-year old sheikh. "Everyone here is like another Sheikh Yassin," says Iyad Hamdi, a stern-faced university student spray painting a message of revenge near the place where thousands of chairs were assembled for mourners. "Of course there will be more martyrdom operations. Because of this, another million people will will come out to take his place."

His friend, Mohammed Abdel Latif, says the assassination will only encourage more Palestinians to sacrifice themselves for the "cause," as Yassin did. "Hamas will not die with Sheikh Yassin," he declares.

Some Israeli strategists apparently hoped that, at the very least, it would be severely weakened. As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon continues to float his "disengagement plan," which would entail a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip - including the 17 Jewish settlements there - and some of the West Bank, the Israeli military has grown concerned with the threat of Hamas capitalizing on the moment of retreat to declare a victory. The worry that Hamas would "win" in the withdrawal from Gaza - similar to the way Hizbullah scored a self-declared victory when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in the spring of 2000 - has unleashed an Israeli military drive to truncate the power of Hamas.

"There was a sense in the government that a strong blow had to be struck because Palestinian militants viewed the declarations of a readiness to withdraw as weakness," says Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "The feeling was that they need to be sent a message."

Mr. Alpher adds that the assassination will help Sharon silence the criticisms of those opposed to the withdrawal and dismantling of settlements. "It will make him popular with the Likud rank and file and help him get approval for the disengagement plan. And he knows the Americans will not object to this."

Professor Jarbawi adds that the assassination "is only the start, not the end of the process of targeting all leaders of Hamas."

"This is part of Israel's disengagement plan. They want to leave Gaza and not leave a strong Hamas behind," Jarbawi says. But he stressed the assassination will weaken the Palestinian Authority. "It is also suffering from what happened Tuesday. In the perception of Palestinians in the street the authority is impotent, it cannot secure Palestinians. People are assassinated and killed and the authority has no reaction but to condemn this."

Alpher adds: "This was a justified attack, but probably not a wise move. By now, we all know there is no military solution to the conflict. You can get rid of Yassin, but you haven't changed the overall equation. That has been the case with assassinations before. The terrorist organizations have the capacity to recover. There are plenty of people to fill in and Hamas now has more motivation." He added that he also expects it to lead to heavy casualties as Hamas retaliates.