TEL AVIV — Israel braced itself for a plunge into the unknown this week, following the army’s March 22 assassination of the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The killing of the charismatic Islamic leader was the most controversial Israeli military action in the three and a half years of violence. Most observers agreed that by targeting a figure of Yassin’s stature, Israel had changed the terms of the current conflict. But no one knew for sure what the change would mean.
Fearing a wave of revenge attacks, Israel’s top political and military leaders were put under around-the-clock guard. Preparations for Passover and the long school holiday, scheduled to begin next week, took a serious blow, as many Israelis avoided shopping malls and other public places and canceled their vacation plans. Hezbollah opened fire on Israeli posts at the Lebanese border, and security officials reported at least 50 terrorism incidents in Israel and the territories within the first two days after the assassination, mostly attempted stabbings and stonings.
The worst, however, was expected to come after the three-day mourning period declared by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
The alarm was not limited to Israel. The U.S. State Department warned against travel to Israel and urged all Americans to leave Gaza. U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East urged Americans to take extra precautions. Jewish institutions around the world were put on alert. A Jewish community center in the city of Toulon in southern France was firebombed Tuesday, although officials declined to say whether Muslim or far-right extremists were responsible.
The killing also cast uncertainty on Prime Minister Sharon’s diplomatic initiatives, including his disengagement plan and his hoped-for invitation to the White House in early April. The Bush administration has repeatedly declined to set a date for a Sharon visit, and the alarmed reactions to the Yassin killing in Washington and around the world prompted speculation that the visit would be delayed yet again.
The 67-year-old Yassin, founder and leader of the uncompromisingly militant Islamic movement, met his death minutes after leaving a Gaza mosque September 22, following early-morning prayers. A paraplegic confined to a wheelchair because of a childhood accident, Yassin kept to a strict daily routine even though Israel had targeted him unsuccessfully last September and had made no secret of its intention to target him again following the double suicide bombing in the Ashdod port March 14. He was struck by three Hellfire missiles, fired from an Israeli air force Apache helicopter, and died instantly. Seven others, mostly bodyguards, were also killed.
Defending the attack, Sharon called Yassin “first and foremost of Hamas murderers,” while Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called him “the Palestinian Bin Laden.” Hamas is blamed for at least 52 suicide bombings that have killed 377 Israelis since the fall of 2000, nearly 40% of all Israelis killed during the Intifada.
The Israeli strike prompted furious reactions throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Iran called it “barbaric,” and even Jordan, which is at peace with Israel, called it a “massacre.” An estimated quarter of a million Palestinians attended Yassin’s funeral in Gaza, where the sheikh’s top deputy and self-declared successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, vowed “not revenge alone, but an all-out war.” Rantisi went into hiding immediately after the funeral along with other senior Hamas leaders, anticipating further Israeli strikes.
The decision to assassinate Yassin had been taken almost immediately after the Ashdod bombing, in which 10 Israelis died. It was supported by nearly all the heads of the security branches; the lone holdout was Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter, who reportedly maintained that killing Yassin would cause more harm than good. “If we are going to kill him, let’s do it when all of the leaders of Hamas are gathered together,” Dichter was quoted as saying during a meeting of the security chiefs. Dichter reportedly argued that killing Yassin alone would be of little operational consequence and would only provoke a wave of terror attacks.
The Security Cabinet was similarly divided when it approved the action, with only Justice Minister Yosef Lapid voting no. Lapid’s Shinui colleague, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, took the dramatic step of publicly criticizing the army’s action afterward, prompting an angry round of Cabinet recriminations.
Public opinion was supportive in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, though not as solidly as officials had hoped. In a poll conducted by Yediot Aharonot, 60% supported the action, yet 81% predicted that terrorist activity would increase. Most Israelis seemed to share the prime minister’s view: When asked if he feared that the assassination would ignite the region, Sharon responded, “It is all burning anyway.”
Repercussions may, however, go way beyond the ordinary cycle of revenge. Hamas leaders vowed to take their fight overseas and threatened for the first time to attack American targets. Security officials recalled that after Israel’s assassination in 1992 of the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi, the Shi’ite group took revenge by blowing up the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people.
Also in question is the impact of the strike — and possible future assassinations — on Sharon’s disengagement plan. Defense officials hoped their actions would cripple Hamas and clear the way for the Palestinian Authority to take control of Gaza after Israel leaves. But critics said that in the inflamed atmosphere following the assassination, any effort to impose order would be seen as collaboration with Israel.