Handing Hamas a Martyr

The killing of Sheik Yassin

Amy Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker, is the author of the novel “Martyrs’ Crossing” (Ballantine, 2002).

23 March 2004
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2004 The Los Angeles Times

By Amy Wilentz

In 1997, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was released from an Israeli prison where he’d served eight years of a life sentence. Upon his return to Gaza, he was taken from a helicopter to the Khan Yunis refugee camp, where I stood among thousands of his ecstatic supporters. It was a wild, electric scene. The sheik’s followers chanted and shouted in transports of joy as he was carried in his wheelchair onto a makeshift stage decorated with bloody images of Palestinian attacks on Israel.

I went to visit the sheik several weeks later in his plain, one-story house down a dusty dirt road in Gaza. He sat in his wheelchair at the end of a large room, his head covered with an undecorated white cloth, loosely draped. On his feet he wore brown leather slippers just like the one that was left behind Monday when three Israeli missiles found their target, killing him and seven other people.

He was a disturbing figure that day in 1997. He spoke in a high-pitched voice that almost had a giggle in it as he castigated Israel and swore he had no knowledge of Hamas’ “military” planning. He was a spiritual leader, he said, but of course he considered violence justified to liberate his occupied country. He cocked his head to listen to our questions in English, and his eyes radiated intelligence as he responded in Arabic through his interpreter.

The circumstances of the sheik’s prison release were intertwined, as was everything in his life, with the roller-coaster relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What, after all, would prompt an Israeli government to free a man who had been sentenced to life for ordering killings of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israeli intelligence?

A Keystone Kops scenario, as it might have been imagined by John le Carre, was what forced the Israelis’ hand. On Sept. 25, 1997, in Amman, the capital of Jordan, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal got out of his car and was attacked by two men, one of whom pushed a hypodermic needle behind Meshaal’s ear and shot something into him that landed Meshaal in the emergency room, struggling for his life. Meshaal’s bodyguard, uninjured, captured the attackers, and the following day the Jordanians revealed that the men were Mossad agents. In order to secure the agents’ release, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushed by a furious King Hussein of Jordan to free Yassin, along with more than 60 other Palestinian prisoners. In the end, Meshaal survived.

In fact, the Israelis had been searching for a face-saving way to release Yassin for some time. With Yassin in custody, they found themselves responsible for a severely handicapped 61-year-old man in poor health whose condition was deteriorating — a man whose esteem and renown among his people only increased with each day he spent in Israeli prison. The Israeli government was worried that the sheik, grown legendary in its custody, would die at any moment. Yassin was without question the second most revered and popular leader of the Palestinians, after Yasser Arafat. Above all, Israel did not want to turn him into a martyr. But now it has, and in a much more clear-cut fashion than if the sheik had died of natural causes behind Israeli bars. Of course, Yassin was not a good man; he gave psychological succor to people bent on murder. Hamas has carried out inhuman, vicious terrorist acts for years, all with Yassin’s blessing.

Still, his killing represents an irreversible shredding of the remaining possibilities for peace. It comes at a blank and dangerous moment, when the prospect for communication between the two sides is especially unlikely. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broadcast his intention to pull Israel out of Gaza, he must have been planning this attack; even as he ate a seaside lunch with Hussein’s son, King Abdullah, a few days ago, the method and timing of this attack must have been fixed.

One wonders what Sharon — who consciously, amid all the violence, has taken care not to harm Arafat — can have imagined as he ordered his troops to commit such an irrevocable act, an act whose repercussions, while unpredictable, will certainly be extreme and multiple. Surely throwing a political sop to his domestic right wing cannot be worth the damage he has just done to his country.

The killing of Yassin was a nose-thumbing, chest-thumping move, proof of how gonzo the Israelis are willing to be in seeking revenge for the Palestinian suicide bombings that continue in spite of the wall Israel is building to stop them. The problem with revenge is that it is seldom measured. Israel has been pursuing Yassin and other Hamas leaders with a single-mindedness that is more about “can do” than “should do.” Such assassinations are questionable not only diplomatically and legally but also strategically.

What does this assassination achieve for Israel and the Israelis? If other assassinations of Hamas leaders are any indication, the immediate result of Yassin’s killing will be a rash of suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians. His killing will harden Palestinian attitudes and further undermine the Palestinian political center, what little is left of it. Perhaps Sharon’s intention, after all, is to show the Palestinians who is really suicidal.