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By Taking Aim at Hamas, Sharon Hopes to Boost Palestinian Authority

March 24, 2004
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No one believes Israel is a safer place just after the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, leader of the terrorist group Hamas.

The question is whether the assassination and continued Israeli pressure on Hamas will contribute to stability over time.

In targeting Yassin, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had clear political goals. He says he intends to crush Hamas so that when Israel withdraws from Gaza as Sharon plans, it will not seem to be forced out by terrorism. As such, Yassin’s boast that Hamas would make Israel leave under fire may have cost him his life.

Sharon also hopes to tilt the balance of power in Gaza dramatically in favor of the more moderate Palestinian Authority so that when Israel pulls out, the Palestinian Authority will be strong enough to maintain law and order.

But will Monday’s attack really help achieve such objectives?

In the short term, few doubt that there will be more terrorist attacks and that more young Palestinians will swell Hamas ranks.

The uncertainty is about the longer term. Advocates of the assassination say relentless pressure will eventually wear down Hamas and help the Palestinian Authority take control of the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal.

These advocates point to the unilateral cease-fire declared by Hamas last summer after intense military pressure by Israel.

Opponents maintain that the pressure will backfire and that Hamas, with the "martyred" Yassin attracting more recruits than ever, will become stronger and even more radicalized. If so, it could forge alliances with major players in the international terrorist network, such as Al-Qaida and Hezbollah, endangering not only Israel but Jews and possibly Westerners everywhere.

The immediate fear is that Hamas will redouble its efforts to carry out a so-called mega-terror attack to retaliate for Yassin’s death.

Palestinian terrorists have attempted such mega-terror acts before. Indeed, the decision to kill Yassin came after terrorists tried earlier this month generate such an attack by blowing up deadly stores of chemicals and gases at the Ashdod port. They failed, however, killing "only" 10 Israelis in a double suicide bombing at the port.

There are several precedents for strong terrorist reaction when Israel kills terrorist leaders. A similar assassination 12 years ago, of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, resulted in a retaliatory attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people.

Likewise, the killing of Hamas master bomb maker Yehiya Ayash in 1996 was followed by a wave of bus bombings that killed dozens of Israelis. The August 2001 targeting of Abu Ali Mustapha, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was followed by the assassination of Israeli Cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

With the terrorist organizations constantly trying to attack Israel, many regard their claims of specific retribution with skepticism. But some analysts warn that Sharon’s pressure on Hamas is likely to backfire.

Reuven Paz, an expert on fundamentalist movements at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, argues that it could trigger such widespread Palestinian support for Hamas that P.A. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei’s days in office could be numbered.

Pressure on Hamas also could also undermine local strongman Mohammed Dahlan, whom Israel eventually would like to see imposing order for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Other analysts suggest that chaos after the assassination could adversely affect Sharon’s projected withdrawal from Gaza. That might make it necessary to leave Israeli troops there, deferring plans for a full withdrawal indefinitely.

But Sharon appears determined to smash Hamas and avert the kind of disorder the analysts fear. Beyond the political tactics surrounding the withdrawal, the government has defined Hamas as a strategic threat that must be destroyed.

That’s because Hamas rules out any compromise with Israel, advocates the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy, and is ready to use any means to achieve its goals.

Government spokesmen say Sharon in effect has declared war on Hamas. The assassination of Yassin, whom Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called Israel’s Osama bin Laden was only the opening shot.

From now on, the officials say, the Israel Defense Forces will focus almost solely on Hamas, targeting its leaders, militiamen and funding.

"No Hamas leader will be immune," Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared.

The Israelis believe they have a green light from Washington for all-out war against Hamas. Unlike the Europeans, who condemned Yassin’s assassination as contrary to international law, American officials at first expressed tacit understanding for Israel’s position, drawing parallels to the U.S. war against global terrorism. Later in the day, however, U.S. spokesman called the attack "deeply troubling."

Since the eruption of the violent Palestinian uprising three and a half years ago, Hamas has committed 425 terrorist attacks, leaving 377 Israelis dead and 2,076 wounded. It has been responsible for 52 suicide bombings that claimed 288 Israeli lives.

According to the IDF intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Aharon Ze’evi, Yassin was directly involved in planning and approving military operations.

Some pundits, like Ha’aretz’s Danny Rubinstein, claim that Yassin was a relative moderate within Hamas. Unlike some of his potential successors, Rubinstein maintains, Yassin could have agreed to a temporary cease-fire with Israel and made it stick.

Also writing in Ha’aretz, Zvi Barel noted that Yassin insisted that the war against Israel not transcend Israeli-Palestinian borders, but his successors might not be similarly restrained.

Barel says new Hamas leaders will lack Yassin’s authority and that Hamas could break up into small splinter groups, some of which may ally themselves with global terrorist groups like Al-Qaida. Hamas, Barel suggests, now could decide "to turn its back on years of strategy and begin operations outside the country, striking at Israeli, Jewish or American targets overseas."

Indeed, Abdel Aziz Rantissi, named Tuesday as Hamas’ new chief for the Gaza Strip, vowed that the group would attack Israelis everywhere.

"We will fight them everywhere. We will hit them everywhere. We will chase them everywhere. We will teach them lessons in confrontation," Rantissi told thousands of mourners gathered in Gaza’s main soccer stadium on Tuesday.

It’s too early to say to what extent targeting an Islamic symbol like Yassin may have opened up a wider front for Israel with the Muslim world. Al-Qaida, at any rate, has vowed to avenge Yassin’s assassination.

Israeli army officers describe the Yassin assassination as heralding "a new era in the fight against terror," which Israel has entered with its eyes wide open. But as the struggle with Hamas escalates, it could take on new forms, raising the stakes for both sides.

If that happens, will the Palestinian Authority and its main Fatah movement stand aside, happy to watch Israel create the conditions for the P.A.’s political hegemony? Or will they feel forced by Palestinian public opinion to join Hamas in fighting Israel?

The answers to those questions could determine whether Sharon’s bold attempt to single out Hamas succeeds or fails — in other words, whether new violence leads only to more carnage or to some sort of political accommodation.

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