Sheik was a killer, but Israel again fans flames

March 24, 2004

The early-morning announcer on Israel Radio spoke in the percussive, high-adrenaline voice reserved for dangerous news.

First came details of the Israeli missile strike outside a Gaza mosque on Sheik Ahmed Yassin, leader of the Islamic terror group Hamas. Then, without a pause for breath, came a description of the extraordinary security alert in Israel and at Israeli institutions abroad that could be targets of terrorists seeking revenge.

The subtext, intended or not, was clear. Killing the Hamas leader was part of Israel's war on terror - but it sharply increased the chance of terror attacks. Riding a bus, entering a mall or sitting down at a Jerusalem café has become more dangerous than it was before the Monday morning attack.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top Israeli generals don't see the irony. Despite the immediate risks, they believe they've crippled Hamas and reduced the long-term terror threat. Besides, Sharon has announced plans for a unilateral Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and apparently hopes Yassin's death will undercut claims that the withdrawal leaves Hamas triumphant.

Sadly, though, the odds are that killing Yassin has made Israelis less safe. Saying this, I express no sympathy for Yassin, whose organization has murdered hundreds of innocent people and sought to prevent any reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. But his death is likely to escalate the conflict - precisely what terrorists seek. Tough as he likes to appear, Sharon is providing an example of how not to fight terror.

Political violence against innocent civilians is sometimes a crime of passion. But for extremist groups, it is a calculated strategy, based on a long political tradition. Today's Islamic extremists are heirs of 19th-century Russian anarchists and of Algerian revolutionaries of the 1950s.

The first challenge of extremists is that most of the people in whose name they fight don't share their extremism. To radicalize "the masses," the extremists engage in political judo: They use violence against civilians in the hope of provoking the government they oppose to respond harshly, in ways that hurt its own legitimacy and make peaceful politics seem impossible.

The worse that conditions get, the more angry people there are to support the extremists, to engage in terror themselves - and to provoke further escalation.

Hamas and other Palestinian groups have used that brutal strategy during the current intifada with a success that is - well, terrifying.

The Sharon government has tried to stop the suicide bombers by military means alone: roadblocks that have choked movement between West Bank towns, invasions of Palestinian cities, "targeted killings" of terror leaders in which the innocent have also died. Those measures have radicalized more Palestinians and boosted the popularity of Hamas, and of Yassin as a national leader.

Yassin's death is likely to help the cause. As a "marytr," he'll inspire the next wave of suicide bombers. Among Palestinians, criticism of Hamas will appear unpatriotic, if not traitorous. What's more, Israeli experts are concerned that Yassin's more radical successors will break with his policy of keeping attacks within Israel and the occupied territories, and will seek to hit Jewish targets abroad.

What's missing in Sharon's strategy is an effort to show Palestinians that they have more to gain through compromise than through terror. Sharon had the opportunity to do that last summer, during the brief tenure of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian Authority prime minister.

A Gaza pullout then, in coordination with Abbas, would have made the moderate Palestinian into a man with proven ability to deliver for his people. Even afterward, Sharon could have used the offer of leaving Gaza as a starting point for resuming peace talks with Abbas' successor, Ahmed Qureia, and as a quid pro quo for Palestinian Authority efforts to disarm extremists. But Sharon has abjured diplomacy.

The lessons go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not surprisingly, President George W. Bush was slow to criticize the Yassin killing. His own approach to terror has been heavy on the macho, short on efforts to build bridges to moderate Muslims - and he, too, has thereby risked playing into terrorists' hands.

Of course, Israel needs to fight terror groups. But it should consider whether its actions will boost support for groups like Hamas. Killing Yassin is the latest example of Sharon's inability to do that. Terrorists will benefit, and innocent people may pay the price.

Gershom Gorenberg, an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report, is the author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount."

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