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The Killing of the Sheikh

We do not celebrate this week. Israel has escalated the Middle East conflict into unknown and dangerous new territory with its killing of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The rules, such as they were, have been upended. All leaders are now fair game. Palestinian rage and determination to attack Israel have been scaled up to new heights, if such a thing is possible. Hopes of an early end to violence and a return to diplomacy have never seemed more dim. Threats of retaliation against American and Jewish targets around the world only increase our sense of foreboding.

And yet it was in profound disbelief that we watched the global chorus of censure raining down on Israel after the killing. As though speaking from some distant planet where up is down and black is white, seemingly sober leaders rose in one capital after another to condemn the Jewish state for successfully eliminating the leader of one of the world’s most active and implacable terrorist organizations. In tones of high moral dudgeon they mocked Israel for targeting “an 80-year-old man in a wheelchair,” in the words of Jack Straw, Tony Blair’s foreign minister, as though they weren’t speaking of a man — age 67, by the way — who had masterminded a 17-year campaign of mass murder.

What was their objection? Primarily, it seems, that Israel’s action was “contrary to international law,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Hamas may be guilty of “atrocities,” as the foreign ministers of the European Union acknowledged in a joint statement, but Israel nonetheless is not “entitled to carry out extra-judicial killings.” The U.N. convened a special meeting of the Security Council, something it had not seen fit to do when its own human rights commissioner was assassinated in Baghdad last summer. Killing Yassin was a mortal blow to the peace process, we were told. And because he was revered as a spiritual leader by broad masses in Palestine and throughout the Arab world, his death heightened tensions worldwide.

But Yassin was no cloistered savant. He founded and led an organization that elevated the mass murder of civilians — men, women and children — to a political and religious duty. His negotiators had spent much of the past year foiling the efforts of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to declare a Palestinian cease-fire, so that some sort of peace process might be revived. Only a week before his death he had launched, with the bombing in Ashdod’s port, a new campaign of terror to accompany Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza. It was that new campaign that sealed his death warrant.

We do not weep for him. He spent his life in a self-declared state of war with Israel. Israel fought back. Yassin brought his death upon himself. Israel did not behave immorally.

Whether Israel behaved wisely is a different question. If the purpose of the killing was to defend Israel’s citizens, as their leaders said repeatedly this week, then the true test is whether Israelis have been defended — that is, whether they are less likely to be killed by terrorists.

The answer, in truth, is not self-evident. After all, Yassin was targeted once before, in a September 6 air raid. That was a response to the horrific August bus bombing in Jerusalem through which Hamas had torpedoed last summer’s Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. The failed raid on the sheikh caused a brief wave of outrage, and Hamas replied three days later with a pair of suicide bombings, killing 15. Immediately afterward, however, the field went quiet. Hamas didn’t bomb again until late January. Israeli intelligence reported that the group’s leadership had gone underground and shut down operations in hopes of avoiding assassination. It turned out that Hamas’s love of suicide ends at the management suite. It would be understandable if Israel were hoping to achieve the same effect this time.

It is a huge gamble, as this week’s vows of spectacular revenge make clear. Nor are the stakes the same as they were last fall. What was at stake then was a U.S.-sponsored road map to peace that Hamas itself had savagely torpedoed, giving Israel a moral advantage. What’s at stake now is Sharon’s own disengagement plan, which requires some sort of Palestinian leadership to take charge after Israel leaves.

Disengagement holds out the possibility of a real separation, putting defensible barriers between Israelis and those who seek to kill them. If targeting Hamas forces other Palestinians to close ranks behind the extremists, Israel will be trapped in its current quagmire with no clear way out. It’s the sort of high-stakes gamble Sharon has made a career out of. It’s brought him and those around him to grief as often as victory.

In today’s global environment, it’s no longer just Israelis who stand to gain or lose from Sharon’s gambles. Jews and Jewish institutions around the world have been targeted repeatedly in the past three years. If Hamas decides to take its fight international — something it has not done up to now — then we truly have been brought into a new stage. If that’s to be the case, then American Jews need to speak up — not just about fighting terrorism, but about finding a way out of the quagmire.

If Israel’s prime minister showed the same decisiveness in advancing his disengagement plan that he showed this week in striking back against the terrorists, he would enjoy more understanding and a good deal more freedom to act. But striking back is an essential part of any formula. Israel’s critics must not forget that.

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