Terrorism Experts Warn Jewish Sites Endangered After Hit on Hamas Head; Groups Clashing On Bill To Provide Security Funding

Institutions Called ‘Soft Underbelly’

By Ori Nir

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — Following Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, terrorism experts are warning that American Jewish sites are ripe targets for revenge attacks, as synagogues and other communal institutions race to step up security.

“I am very concerned that Yassin’s assassination may come back to hit us in our soft underbelly: Jewish targets abroad,” said Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Paz, a former analyst with Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said that Yassin was the only Hamas leader who publicly opposed carrying out operations outside Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Yassin’s assassination “takes the conflict to an elevated sphere,” said Paz, “which may drive Hamas to operate outside Palestine, and is also likely to motivate other Islamic groups” to do so.

Hamas, for the first time, threatened the United States on Monday, in a communiqué it issued hours after Yassin was killed. “The Zionists would have not carried out this act without the consent of the terrorist American administration, and the administration should be held accountable for this crime,” stated the message from the military wing of Hamas. “Reaction to the killing will come not only from the Palestinian factions in Palestine but from all Muslims in the world.”

By Wednesday, however, several Hamas officials, including the group’s new leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said that they would limit future strikes to Israeli targets. Regardless of which course Hamas eventually settles on, observers are also worried that the assassination of Yassin could motivate other Islamic groups: A Web site linked to Al Qaeda also threatened Monday to attack American targets in retaliation.

Such threats have American Jewish institutions across the country increasing security.

“This is one of those times when I suspect that most people would be tightening security,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington. “Any time such a controversial figure is killed, there is a general concern about the response. The fact that he was killed coming out of a mosque raises particular concerns for synagogues, so of course we are concerned.”

Representatives of the Conservative and Orthodox synagogue movements said that they were also expecting their congregations to implement heightened security measures. In New York, law enforcement agencies increased security at synagogues and in Jewish neighborhoods, though the city’s police chief, Raymond Kelly, said no specific threats had been received.

Absent specific threats, the Jewish community’s national alert system was not put to use this week, said the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. The system is supposed to alert Jewish institutions to specific security threats and advise them on precautions. The ADL did, however, send a security message to its regional offices advising vigilance and caution.

Despite the lack of detailed threats, Bush administration officials share the concern that the assassination puts American targets in jeopardy, diplomatic sources in Washington said.

The United States on Wednesday warned its citizens in Gaza to leave and advised against travel to Israel or the territories. U.S. embassies in Syria and Jordan issued similar warnings Tuesday to American residents there.

The administration did not flatly condemn the assassination, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher and then White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli action.

Administration insiders described Monday as a day on which Boucher started by contemplating a mild rebuke, then toughened it as European and Arab countries expressed alarm that the attack would strengthen Hamas rather then weaken it.

The administration is particularly concerned that the attack may jeopardize any potential future for the peace process or make it impossible for the Palestinian Authority to effectively assume responsibility for security in the Gaza Strip once Israel withdraws. That, sources said, was what President Bush meant when he said that he hoped Israel “keeps consequences in mind as to how to make sure we stay on the path to peace’’ while defending itself against terrorists, and what National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice meant when she said that she hoped “nothing will be done that would preclude” new opportunities for advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Especially aggravating, U.S. officials said, was the prospect that the assassination would scuttle the possibility of a new peace initiative from next week’s Arab League summit.

Given Hamas’s power and the P.A.’s apparent inability or unwillingness to confront the Islamic group — either before or after an Israeli withdrawal — administration officials are divided over the policy Israel should take before it leaves the Gaza Strip, sources said. Some in the White House argue that Israel should destroy as much of Hamas’s infrastructure there as it can before pulling out of the area. The prevailing view in the State Department, however, sources said, is that, since Israel cannot effectively wipe out Hamas, it should calculate the damage that its actions against the Islamic group will do to the strength of the P.A.

Sharon has promised a finalized withdrawal plan in time for a summit with President Bush tentatively set for April 14.

Sharon’s bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, is in Washington this week for another round of talks with U.S. officials. Discussions between Washington and Jerusalem over a Gaza pullout have been taking place since early February.

It’s an open question whether Sharon will meet the deadline. U.S. officials and others have expressed frustration with the vagueness of the proposals so far.

“What are the parameters?” said David Satterfield, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, to the Israel Policy Forum recently. “Not just for Gaza, but for the West Bank, for the separation barrier. What’s out there?’’

After Hamas reportedly threatened to broaden its attacks beyond Israeli targets, European Union foreign ministers said in a statement that the killing “has inflamed the situation.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan “strongly condemned” the killing and said he was worried that “such an action would lead to further bloodshed and death and acts of revenge and retaliation.”

While many governments abroad were critical of what they viewed as the White House’s slow and tepid criticisms of Israel, the Zionist Organization of America issued a condemnation of the Bush administration for its criticism of Israel.

Officials at other pro-Israel groups, however, minimized the administration criticism and said they didn’t expect it to last.

“The administration is even more concerned than the Israelis that the disengagement go through and that Hamas not take control of Gaza, and any action the Israelis take to prevent that happening, they support,” said one pro-Israel official based in Washington.

Democrats, mindful of election-year pressure to outflank Bush on support for Israel, took the initiative. A spokesman for presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said: “It’s important to remember that Sheik Yassin was responsible for organizing dozens of deadly terror attacks in Israel.” More than 20 congressmen signed on to a letter to Bush organized by Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, calling on the president to “immediately repudiate McClellan’s statement.”

Several Democratic members of Congress, including Reps. Eliot Engel and Anthony Weiner of New York, and Shelley Berkley of Nevada, issued statements supporting the strike on Yassin. Senator Hillary Clinton, of New York, told a Jewish audience Tuesday in Washington that Americans should stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself, “including going after those who direct” terrorism.

Several Jewish groups issued statements defending the assassination of Yassin, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s main pro-Israel umbrella organization. “We must not and cannot succumb to threats of terrorists who use intimidation to achieve their ends,” the Presidents Conference declared in its statement. “To do so would only encourage them to augment their attacks.”

Israeli officials said this week that eliminating Yassin will eventually weaken Hamas, but experts on Palestinian affairs said that the Palestinian Authority is the one entity that is losing ground and was already at risk of being overcome by Hamas in Gaza. Assassinating Yassin, who was admired by secular and Islamist Palestinians alike, has only escalated the rise of Hamas, several experts said.

“This significantly minimizes the ability of the Palestinian Authority forces to confront Hamas,” Paz said.

Similar concerns were raised by top administration officials who met with Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom in Washington on Tuesday. Shalom, according to a senior member of his entourage, told Secretary of State Colin Powell, Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney that the P.A., with what he said is a 22,000-man armed forced in Gaza, should easily prevail over Hamas and its 1,000 armed activists.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Ha’aretz contributed to this report.

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