A muddled attack

Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a last-ditch attempt to cohere itself.

Nick Frayn

Topics Politics

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The Israeli assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, brings Israel’s war on terror back on to the front pages. Indeed, it has provoked UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, who was attending the European Union’s own anti-terror conference, to condemn the attack as ‘unjustified’ (1).

Of course, there is a double standard at work here. It is not clear why assassinating the leadership of a militant group in the Gaza Strip is any less justified than the current US campaign against tribal groups in Waziristan. At least the Israelis knew that it was Sheikh Yassin they were knocking off. But the Israeli reasoning behind the attack was just as muddled and incoherent as the US coalition’s thinking behind its own war on terror. The assassination has more to do with the internal logic of the Israeli state than it does with Yassin or the rest of Hamas.

With the slow demise of the current intifada, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain the fiction of a war between equals. The spectre of fanatical suicide bombers is becoming increasingly transparent, as attacks have become less and less frequent, aimed at softer and softer targets. In no way could they represent a serious challenge to the might of the Israeli state. Following an isolated suicide bombing on 14 March (which killed 11 people), Israel upped the ante, killing almost 50 Palestinians (most of whom were also civilians) in the last week alone, not to mention Yassin (2). This was not a targeted or proportionate response.

Nor should we accept Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s statement that ‘We had to assassinate him – we had to kill him – because we simply cannot put up with more terrorist activities’ (3). Yassin and the Hamas movement are pragmatists above all. With no ideology to speak of they were always willing to deal with the Israelis. So what is driving Israel’s belligerency?

Conflict was the principle around which the Israeli state – a nation formed to keep the Jews safe from further persecution – was cohered. Israelis’ antagonistic relationship with their Arab neighbours from 1948 onwards entrenched the trend. This was reflected not just in the military culture of Israel, but also in the fact that most domestic conflicts were subsumed by the national cause. For example, relations between labour and business in Israel were mediated by the Histradut, a ‘super union’ organised in part by the state. This period of consensus is epitomised by the fact that the Labor Party governed the country continuously for almost 30 years.

As long as conflict remained likely it kept the Israeli state coherent. From the early 1980s, however, there were major shifts in the international scene. Under President Anwar Sadat, Egypt abandoned the Arab cause, leaving it weak and ineffectual. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and his defence minister Ariel Sharon sought to press home this advantage in their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but the plan backfired badly. While victory came relatively easily, occupation of a sovereign Arab state proved difficult. There were no heroic moments in the ruthless (and unsuccessful) pacification of the Lebanese population. Much like American Vietnam veterans, Israeli conscripts returned from the front with stories of civilian massacres and everyday brutality.

Events came to a head with the public inquiry into the slaughter in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, which held Ariel Sharon responsible. Even more damaging though, was the accusation that Israel had fought a ‘war of choice’, as opposed to a ‘war of no choice’, which was how all previous conflicts with Arab states had been characterised. Of course, ‘choice’ and ‘no choice’ were fluid categories – that the Lebanon war was characterised in this way only reflected the Israeli public’s new questioning attitude.

The Lebanon war is often given great significance in accounting for the rise of the ‘new historians’ who, through detailed archival research, undermined many of the founding myths of the Israeli state. In terms of wider Israeli society, however, the end of the Cold War probably had a greater impact. The forces of Arab nationalism were vanquished forever, as Soviet funding for the radical Arab states dried up, and the USA coopted them into its regional coalition in the war against Iraq. The Israeli elite lost two sources of legitimacy at once: its special role as US policeman, and any credible threat of Arab belligerency. It was forced into a humiliating compromise in the US-sponsored peace process, symbolised by US secretary of state James Baker’s threat to withhold American loan guarantees in order to instigate a settlement freeze.

The peace process years brought great discord in Israeli politics. Prime minister after prime minister was elected on dwindling turnouts, cobbling together unstable coalitions, while parliamentary auditors investigated party funding scandals. ‘Man of Peace’ Shimon Peres was the first to experiment with opportunist military adventurism as a way out of the morass, with his ugly incursion into southern Lebanon in 1996. It was later to become the stock in trade of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu. Needless to say, Ariel Sharon has proved the master of this tactic. His infamous visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in 2000 coincided with mounting Palestinian resentment at their meagre gains from the Oslo peace process. The result was the intifada that swept Sharon to power and gave rise to the rhetoric of the Israeli war on terror.

Fighting the straw man of Palestinian resistance, however, cannot provide Israel with a coherent mission. The cracks are apparent everywhere: in the conscription refuseniks, the division between religious and secular, and the growth of Sephardi politics. The population has turned its back on the Ashkenazi elite, and no amount of hyperbole about the dangers of terrorists, or Israeli success in fighting them, will win the people back.

Already the assassination of Sheikh Yassin has provoked a mixed response from Israeli politicians (4). Given the lack of a constructive political agenda, such disparagement is unsurprising. In a recent Ha’aretz column, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy pointed out that the Israeli Defence Force claimed to have killed the ‘military head of Hamas in Hebron’ five times in the in past two years (5). A typical story from both the US and Israeli wars on terror, such debacles can only reinforce public and international cynicism toward the Israeli state.

Nick Frayn researches Middle East politics and history, and is based in New York.

Read on:

Israel: fantasy and reality, by Brendan O’Neill

spiked-issue: Middle East

(1) Huge crowds mourn Hamas leader, BBC News, 22 March 2004

(2) Palestinian Red Crescent Society

(3) Israel defiant over Yassin killing, 22 March 2004

(4) Israel defiant over Yassin killing, 22 March 2004

(5) Ha’aretz, 14 September 2003

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Topics Politics


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