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Western Press Review: The Yassin Assassination And Hope For Peace In the Middle East; The 11 September Inquiry

Prague, 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Much of today's press commentary focuses on the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas. Yassin was killed in a targeted Israeli air strike in the early morning hours yesterday. With Hamas calling for revenge, many observers are wondering how Yassin's death will affect the already-shaky Mideast peace process.

Today's commentaries also look ahead to the latest round of hearings by the U.S. commission investigating the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The hearings, which began today, will hear testimony from a number of current and former U.S. officials, including Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser and author of a new book that is strongly critical of the Bush administration for failing to recognize the danger of Al-Qaeda.


Writing in the "Los Angeles Times," Laura King and Ken Ellingwood call Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to target Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin a "high-stakes gamble."

"One can only expect more bloodshed and an escalation of the cycle of violence that will scupper any prospect of a settlement within the foreseeable future."
Sharon has bet that Yassin's assassination would leave the militant Hamas "reeling and disoriented," unable to plan and execute more attacks against Israeli citizens. But Sharon's administration is now "well aware that the cries for revenge ringing through the streets of Gaza are likely to herald more suicide bombings," say the authors.

The authors say the assassination could lead to other "unintended consequences, including bolstering Hamas' ties with other militant groups, sowing greater chaos in the Gaza Strip, and strengthening the position of Sharon's bitter foe, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat," a Yassin rival.

Killing someone "as revered by Palestinians as Yassin was cited by some as the latest example of Sharon's tendency to take matters into his own hands regardless of the consequences." King and Ellingwood remark that Sharon tends toward unilateral action.

But even after killing a leader of Hamas' military wing, "a new one is usually in place within days or even hours." And Yassin's role in the organization was not so much tactical as spiritual. They cite both Hamas sources and Israeli intelligence officials as saying that although Yassin was generally well-informed on Hamas strategy, his real importance "was as a figurehead and an inspiration."

And this is a role "that could be augmented rather than diminished by what his followers view as a perfectly scripted martyr's end."


In an editorial, "The Daily Telegraph" notes that EU foreign ministers were quick to condemn the "extra-judicial" killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. And yet, a "whiff of hypocrisy emanates from such moralizing ministers, some of whom have cheerfully countenanced assassination attempts of their own -- most recently against the leaders of Iraq, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban."

The decision to kill Yassin "already looks like a serious mistake, less for moral than for strategic reasons. [By] granting Yassin the martyrdom he craved, the Israelis have provided a motive for new suicide attacks. More young Palestinians will fall in love with death, and more Israeli civilians will die with them."

The paper writes: "Whatever Yassin's death was meant to achieve, its symbolism is disastrous for Israel. [Despite] intensive efforts to improve Israel's image abroad, and despite sympathy for victims of suicide [bombings], the Jewish state now looks more isolated than ever."

In a separate item, the "Telegraph's" Alan Philips adds that, "From a moral point of view, there is no question that Yassin had much blood on his hands. He did not select the targets, make the bombs, or train the recruits for the Hamas military wing. Yet he set the tone and was capable of turning the campaigns on and off."

However, Philips says "it is not enough to be right; you have to be clever. There is little that looks clever in yesterday's assassination in Gaza."


This London-based daily calls Yassin's assassination "an extremely stupid action." His death will be seen as "a big escalation in the conflict, which in addition will now probably spill over into the international arena."

In the long run, the paper says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy of carrying out targeted assassinations "will encourage terror, not counter it."


In a contribution to Britain's "Guardian" daily, Anas Altikriti of the Muslim Association of Britain says Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin "may have brought to an end any prospect of peace in the Middle East."

For millions of Muslims all over the world, Altikriti says Yassin "was seen not only as the founder of Hamas, but as the spiritual father of the latest phase of Palestinian armed struggle for freedom, liberation and the reclamation of their occupied homeland. It was also Yassin who insisted that his people's struggle must remain within the boundaries of Palestine, and continuously offered Israel the chance of a truce, which was repeatedly turned down."

If the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought that getting rid of Yassin "would bring closer the chance of peace and resolution to a conflict that has brought unspoken misery and bloodshed, then it is a government suffering from serious self-delusion."

Altikriti says, "One can only expect more bloodshed and an escalation of the cycle of violence that will scupper any prospect of a settlement within the foreseeable future."

The death of Yassin "is a turning point in the history of the struggle of a people. Alas, it is not a turning point that brings promise or hope."


Columnist David Ignatius says that for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "it's better to be seen as ruthless than as weak." That may be especially true right now, as Sharon plans to withdraw Israeli settlements from Gaza. The danger of this withdrawal is that "terrorist groups such as Hamas might think they had 'won' by forcing an Israeli retreat." In assassinating a key Hamas leader, Sharon has ensured that the group's leadership cannot take credit for the Israeli pullout.

But Ignatius asks, will the Israeli operation achieve its other intended effect, that of stopping the suicide bombings perpetrated by Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups? He says, "The killing of Yassin might be justified -- politically if not morally -- if it stopped the spread of the terrorism Yassin had helped foment. But even by this test, the assassination seems unlikely to achieve its intended result."


Gilles Paris of France's leading daily says the assassination of Yassin has merely exacerbated the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Paris says the timing of the assassination is ironic, coming as it does just as Israel is planning to withdraw settlements from the Gaza Strip. The anticipated withdrawal is not particularly glorious, he says, for Israeli leaders. And if realized, it might well seem a victory for Hamas.

Hamas seems to be the winner on two counts, he says. It has managed to shape the war of attrition it is fighting with the premier military power in the region and has won validation for its use of force by securing the Israeli withdrawal. It is within this context that Israel carried out the assassination of Yassin. The Israeli army wants to effect its withdrawal only after having decapitated Hamas -- or at least after striking it sufficiently that its "victory" is obscured by its losses.


An editorial today discusses the allegations made by former White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who is scheduled to testify today before the commission investigating the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.

The paper says Clarke "has served honorably under presidents of both parties," and that his "words are very much worth listening to." But it says it does not necessarily find all of his criticisms of the current administration equally persuasive.

Clarke's central complaint -- that the president failed to respond to his urgent request for a cabinet-level meeting on terrorism until days before 9/11 -- "is far from conclusive evidence that the administration failed to take the threat seriously until disaster struck."

But the paper says the "most persuasive part of the critique by the former anti-terrorism czar concerns the administration's obsession with Iraq." Clarke says he and intelligence experts repeatedly told administration officials, as well as Bush himself, that Iraq was not involved in the 11 September attacks or with Al-Qaeda.

So, as November elections approach, and the public "has to judge Mr. Bush's decision to invade [Iraq], voters will know that the president's own counterterrorism adviser had warned him that he was on the wrong track."


Richard Cohen of "The Washington Post" says it is "getting to be downright amazing" how many former officials from the Bush administration make such strikingly similar accusations.

First, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill alleged that the 11 September attacks were used as a pretext to invade Iraq. Now, former White House counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke alleges much the same thing, saying Bush specifically sought a connection between the attacks and Iraq, despite evidence to the contrary that pointed to Al-Qaeda.

Cohen also criticizes the Bush administration for not paying enough attention to the threat from Al-Qaeda before the attacks. "Clarke says the Bush team refused to come to grips with [Osama] bin Laden. Among other things, he asked for a cabinet-level meeting or access to the president to discuss the Al-Qaeda threat. For eight months, he got neither. Instead, he says, the administration was obsessed with Saddam Hussein."

But the White House is already issuing official denials, alleging that Clarke, like O'Neill, is guilty of falling into "hysteria" or committing an "unaccountable betrayal."