How Israel's Hamas Killing Affects the U.S.

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Iraqis in Baghdad demonstrate against the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

It's not some misguided conspiracy theory that leads the Arab and Palestinian street to accuse the U.S. of green-lighting the killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin — and that could cause problems for the U.S. in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. The Bush administration has typically set "red lines" for Israel in terms of its handling of the Palestinians, and while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has systematically pushed back those red lines over the past three years, he has tended to avoid crossing them. Sharon has repeatedly made clear, for example, that the reason he has refrained from assassinating Yasser Arafat is U.S. pressure. The administration knew of the Israeli desire to eliminate Sheikh Yassin, for the simple reason that Shron's government had tried and failed to do so late last year. The Bush administration's first response came from National Security Adviser Condelezza Rice, whose refusal to condemn the killing and her statements rationalizing by pointing to Yassin's terror connection suggested that there had certainly been no "red line" drawn in this instance. And that's more than enough for Hamas. The military wing of the Palestinian Islamist group issued a statement warning that it would retaliate against both Israeli and American targets, marking the first time Hamas had called for violence against the U.S. The statement was denied, Wednesday, by Hamas's new leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who stressed that his organization remained focused exclusively on attacking Israel. But some Hamas supporters and likeminded elements throughout the Arab world may choose to act on it, anyway.

Despite its ideological affinity with the global jihadi cause, analysts believe Hamas had previously rebuffed efforts to draw it directly into the al-Qaeda orbit. Some in the organization have advocated attacking American targets, but their position has been in the minority. Hamas leaders had wanted to maintain their independence and also to profit from the wider Arab sympathy engendered by its position as an exclusively Palestinian-national movement targeting the Israelis (as opposed to becoming just another local chapter of Osama bin Laden's global jihad). The movement's headquarters is in Damascus, which despite its frosty relations with the U.S. remains deeply hostile to al-Qaeda, and its precarious position viz-a-viz U.S. power would make it reluctant to allow its Palestinian "guests" to openly threaten terror attacks on U.S. interests. While the U.S. concurs with Israel in denouncing Hamas as nothing more than a terrorist organization, Sheikh Yassin's group continues to enjoy widespread legitimacy in the Arab world, even among those actively assisting the U.S. war on terror, as an authentic voice of Palestinian aspirations and anger.

No shortage of help

Al-Qaeda, of course, wouldn't be the only "volunteers" to help Hamas hit back. Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement answered the call for help on Monday by launching rocket attacks at Israeli military installations along the northern border. And Iraqi demonstrators in Mosul and Basra took to the streets, vowing to retaliate by attacking U.S. interests in Iraq. Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council even warned that the killing of Yassin could add impetus to violence in Iraq. Adnan al-Assadi a Council member from the Shiite Dawa party said that militants would use the Yassin assassination to justify new attacks on the U.S. And Iraqi outrage over Yassin's killing was hardly confined to the "Sunni Triangle" that has nurtured the insurgency against the U.S. and its allies. Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the single most influential leader in Iraq, called on Muslims to unite against Israel, while the more militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered the Palestinians "moral and physical support." In an already tense transition process, the extent to which the U.S. is viewed as complicit in an Israeli action that has outraged Iraqis will not make the task of U.S. soldiers and officials there any easier.

But even as Israel braces for the inevitable wave of terror in response, some of its security officials maintain that after a few weeks or months of heightened danger, eliminating the spiritual leader of its most implacable enemy will, in the long run, have made Israel safer. The primary rationale offered by Israeli officials for killing Yassin, however, was not to preempt some new wave of attacks. Instead, the purpose is primarily symbolic: To project an image of uncompromising Israeli strength on the eve of its possible unilateral withdrawal from most of the Gaza Strip. When Israel suddenly withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah had claimed that as a major victory for its two decades of guerrilla warfare. And, Israeli officials believe, that had encouraged Palestinian militants in the same year to abandon the road of diplomacy and renew their "armed struggle" in the hope of driving Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza. By hitting Hamas hard before withdrawing, Israel hopes to send a message that its departure should not be read as a retreat.

The U.S. has been especially concerned, in recent weeks, to ensure that if Israel does withdraw from Gaza, the resulting power vacuum is not filled by Hamas. But rather than weaken the movement's political authority on the streets of Gaza, the slaying of Yassin may actually have strengthened it. And that's grim news for any hope that the near-moribund Palestinian Authority could be revived in order to take charge of Gaza's security in the wake of Israel's planned departure. An estimated 200,000 people — almost one fifth of Gaza's population — reportedly turned out on the streets for Sheikh Yassin's funeral. Hamas's popularity in Gaza has grown steadily at the expense of the Palestinian Auhority in the course of the current intifadah. While the PA is widely viewed as incorrigibly corrupt and incapable of either protecting Palestinians or achieving their national rights, Hamas maintains an extensive welfare network providing services that the PA can't; its leaders are viewed as incorruptible and its terror attacks give it the image of a movement capable of hitting back at the Israelis. Almost four years into the current intifada, Hamas has long ago eclipsed the PA in political support — that's why every peace effort of the past couple of years has involved efforts by the PA to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas leaders. Even though Hamas is reported to have no more than about 2,000 men under arms in Gaza compared with the 20,000 of the PA, the Islamist movement's political standing is so much greater that PA security officials have found themselves prevented from arresting Hamas leaders by large angry crowds. Security officials concede that their men are deeply reluctant to move against Hamas, and Monday's assassination triggered anti-PA violence in different parts of Gaza.

Taking police action against Hamas has become almost unthinkable for the PA leadership now, and the killing of Sheikh Yassin may have scuppered attempts by the PA to negotiate a modus vivendi after the Israelis withdraw. Many analysts on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide have concluded that Monday's killing will likely strengthen Hamas at the expense of the PA.

In the absence of a single "spiritual leader," Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza will be lead by a collective comprising operational military and political leaders who have escaped previous Israeli attempts. But these men will know that in Israeli eyes, they too are dead men walking — after all, Israel's "decapitation" strategy only makes sense if the assassinations are repeated for each successive replacement leadership. (Rantisi has already escaped one attempt on his life.) For Hamas, that means adapting the leadership structures to make them less dependent on the survival of specific individuals. Under those circumstances, efforts by the PA, Egypt and others interested parties to broker some form of truce may become that much more difficult. And that, in turn effectively ends any prospect in the immediate future for a peace process that requires Hamas sanction, leaving the PA as a lame duck and the Islamists ascendant in the street.

The Bush administration has been quietly promoting its "Greater Middle East Initiative" in recent weeks, looking to enlist European support for a program to promote reform and democracy in the Arab world. But the most consistent point of criticism from Arab capitals is that the document ignores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. officials counter by insisting that the unresolved conflict in the Holy Land can't be used as an excuse to delay desperately needed reforms throughout the region. President Bush's European allies, first among them Britain's Tony Blair, have long warned that the Bush administration's failure to intervene more forcefully, and its apparent backing of Ariel Sharon's strategy for dealing with the Palestinians, undermine U.S. efforts in the wider Middle East. The fallout from the assassination of Sheikh Yassin may yet test both propositions.