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ARABS-ISRAEL - Mar 22 - Shaikh Yassin Killed.

Missiles from Israeli helicopters kill wheel-chair-bound Hamas founder Shaikh Ahmad Yassin and six of his bodyguards and bystanders while on their way home from pre-dawn prayers at his neighbourhood mosque in Gaza. Within a few hours hundreds of thousands of angry Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza in protest and during a later procession to bury the dead. Arab and EU leaders and top official from other countries condemned the assassinations. But the US had a different position (see Arab-US Relations). During the funerals a huge crowd chanted "revenge, revenge". In the evening, Palestinian militants fired several homemade rockets and mortar shells at Israeli targets in and near Gaza, but caused no injuries. Hezbollah guerrillas fired anti-tank missiles and artillery rounds at Israeli troops along Israel's border with Lebanon, drawing Israeli return fire. (The Yassin assassination was part of PM Sharon's effort to crush Hamas ahead of a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. But the killing was seen as a huge gamble that could galvanise the Palestinians behind Hamas). Rival militant groups pledged solidarity with Hamas. Defence Minister Mofaz told parliament's Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee: "If we have to balance how many more terrorists Yassin would have sent, how many terror attacks he would have approved, if we weigh this on the scales, we acted correctly". But lawmaker Yossi Sarid of the dovish Yahad Party said: "This had nothing to do with security, nothing to do with protecting Israeli citizens. It's all about politics and public opinion". Hamas said in a statement: "All the Muslims of the world will be honoured to join in on the retaliation for this crime". Hamas threatened the US for the first time, saying America's backing of Israel made the assassination possible, adding: "The Zionists didn't carry out their operation without getting the consent of the terrorist American administration and it (America) must take responsibility for this crime". Egypt cancelled a trip by legislators and other dignitaries to Israel to mark the 25th anniversary of the peace treaty between the two countries.

A Mar 26 article in The NYT noted: "One engine of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been that the stories each side tells are much more persuasive to itself than to its adversary. That is a reason for the present spike in violence" (as Sharon tries to build support for a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and as Hamas works to secure a role governing Gaza once the Israelis leave). "Each side says it wants to show the other that an Israeli withdrawal is evidence of its own strength. Each is more likely to succeed in persuading itself - possibly prompting further violence. Hamas sees a unilateral Israeli withdrawal as a political opportunity". (In the weeks before Israel killed him, Yassin was in talks with other Palestinian factions over how to govern Gaza if the Israelis depart. That was a landmark change for Hamas as the Islamic group always refused a role within the governing Palestinian Authority, PA, regarding it as a creature of the Oslo peace process. Since Sharon is planning to leave Gaza without an agreement, Hamas now feels free to step in and contest some elections. After more than three years of conflict, Palestinian political support in Gaza and the West Bank flows partly from which group can do the most damage to Israel. For Sharon, the proposed withdrawal has political advantages, but it also poses a problem. He is under attack from Israeli hawks as repeating what they believe to be Israel's mistake in withdrawing unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000. Many Israelis believe that withdrawal undercut Israel's deterrence policy, its prized bulwark against Arab attack, and emboldened Palestinians to begin their uprising four months later. Now, Sharon is alarmed by what he sees as a surge in terrorism. Since Sharon said on Feb. 2 he was "working on the assumption that in the future there will be no Jews in Gaza", violence in and around Gaza has escalated. Militants in Gaza stepped up their attacks on Israelis, and the Israeli army stepped up its incursions into Gaza. On Mar 21 Sharon's finance minister and chief right-wing rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, offered qualified support for the withdrawal plan. But he also invoked Lebanon, warning: "A unilateral withdrawal might motivate terrorists".

After the Mar 22 killing, Sharon told legislators from his Likud faction that because Israel was planning the bold step of a withdrawal, its action against terrorism would have to become tougher. Palestinians says Israel is running from Palestinian resistance). The NYT article said: "That the fight has exacted an appalling cost from Palestinian society - a ruined economy, a culture of death among the young - only reinforces the importance to Palestinians of rejecting Sharon's preferred version. To tell their own tale, Hamas militants now need to unleash devastating attacks on Israel. For Sharon, Israel's killing of Yassin was the start of his next chapter. For Palestinians, it served exactly the same purpose. A child who called in to a Hamas radio station the day after the missile strike declared, 'The assassination of Shaikh Yassin is the assassination of the state of Israel'. Another child called in to say, 'victory is soon'" (The PA in Gaza is close to collapse. It is struggling to meet payrolls and to keep the lights turned on in ministry buildings. Its popularity has faded as Palestinians have come to regard it as incompetent and corrupt. For its part, Hamas has built a network of schools and low-cost health clinics. Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar has been quoted as saying: "We are going to contest municipal elections". He said Hamas would not contest the presidency, held by Arafat, until Israel also withdraws from the West Bank. The NTY article noted that Zahar, who referred to Fatah as "the left wing", bridled when it was suggested that Hamas was a radical group. "Radical?" he said. "We are not radical. Your concept of radical means extremist". He added: "The radical system describes people who lived in the Middle Ages, who prevented science and propped up the church at the expense of the poor people. This does not apply in our life".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7PALE
Date:Mar 27, 2004
Previous Article:ARAB-EUROPEAN RELATIONS - Mar 25 - Blair Visits Qadhafi.
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