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An Unwise Assassination

March 23, 2004

The Bush administration isn't shedding any tears over the death of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, nor should it. But it was important for the White House and the State Department to criticize -- however mildly and belatedly -- Israel's assassination of Yassin on Monday. Washington needs to avoid being seen as the provider of a blank check to Ariel Sharon's government to deal any way that it wants with the Palestinians.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw correctly called the Yassin killing "unacceptable ... unjustified and very unlikely to achieve its objective" of stopping Palestinian attacks. Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. national security advisor, unfortunately said only that Hamas was a terrorist organization and Yassin one of its planners. Rice's description of Hamas and Yassin is accurate. It doesn't follow, though, that Israel's murder of Yassin was wise or effective. Only later did the White House say, through a spokesman, that it was "deeply troubled" by the killing.

Hamas dispatches young people with bombs strapped to their waists to board buses or go to shopping malls and cafes in Israel to kill innocent men, women and children. It should be condemned for each of those attacks and for refusing to accept Israel's existence. But killing Yassin, a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound quadriplegic cleric, will spur revenge attacks on Israel.

Also ominous was a Hamas statement that U.S. support for Israel made the killing possible. That was a change from earlier Hamas statements that its fight was only against Israel and that it would not join Islamic extremists in campaigns elsewhere.

Yassin founded Hamas in 1987. The group also runs schools and feeds Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which Israel seized in its 1967 war with Arab nations. Israel sentenced Yassin to life imprisonment plus 15 years in 1989 for ordering attacks, but in 1997 it freed him and others in exchange for two Israeli intelligence agents who had failed in an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Jordan.

Rice and other U.S. officials said Monday that they had no prior knowledge of the Israeli attack on Yassin. However, Israel has tried to kill the cleric before; if Washington objected, Israel ignored the advice of its major ally, weapons supplier and financial supporter. The Bush administration has been notably reluctant to criticize the Sharon government, even when it has ignored Washington's concerns, such as in its expansion of settlements in occupied territory.

The administration should follow up on its criticism of the killing of Yassin by working for a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israel as a prelude to negotiations based on the battered "road map" to peace drawn up by the U.S. and allied nations.

Palestinian supporters have long criticized the Bush administration for what is seen by many in the international community as the United States' automatic support of Israel. The best rejoinder is renewed diplomacy aimed at ending "targeted killings" by Israel and suicide bombings by radical Palestinians.

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