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THE WORLD / RISING CONFLICT IN THE MIDEAST | NEWS ANALYSIS

Sharon Bets on Weakening Hamas

Israel counts on disarray inside militant group after leader's death, but some fear more attacks.

March 23, 2004|Laura King and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — As high-stakes gambles go, Monday's assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin ranks as one of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's biggest rolls of the dice.

In eliminating Yassin, the aging, ailing founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sharon has wagered that the strike would leave the Islamic militant group's disciples reeling and disoriented, undercutting their organizational effectiveness and sapping their will to carry out more attacks.

Sharon also appears to have calculated that the dramatic strike would help ensure that his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip was not interpreted by Palestinian militants as a sign of weakness. The prime minister may also believe the boldness of this move will boost his sagging political standing among Israelis, analysts say.

Yet even those Israeli officials who supported Sharon's decision to kill Yassin are well aware that the cries for revenge ringing through the streets of Gaza are likely to herald yet more suicide bombings, which Hamas, during 42 months of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has turned into its trademark weapon.

The assassination could have other unintended consequences, including bolstering Hamas' ties to other militant groups, sowing greater chaos in the Gaza Strip, and strengthening the position of Sharon's bitter foe, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who saw Yassin as his most powerful rival.

"The killing of Sheik Yassin is liable to open a cycle of bloodshed and exact a heavy and needless cost from Israel," said Yossi Beilin, a veteran leftist politician who was one of the architects of a much-discussed but unofficial peace blueprint with the Palestinians.

Killing a figure as revered by Palestinians as Yassin was cited by some as the latest example of Sharon's tendency to take matters into his own hands regardless of the consequences. The Israeli prime minister, who spent most of his adult life as a military man with a reputation for impetuousness on the battlefield, personally oversaw the strike against the Hamas founder, according to media reports and Israeli officials.

Sharon "is a person who believes that you solve things by force," said Uzi Benzamin, a political columnist at the Haaretz newspaper and author of a biography of the leader. "Ever since he was a young soldier, he was more or less educated to believe you solve all problems by force."

The decision to strike down the frail, half-blind cleric also fits into an increasingly familiar pattern of behavior on Sharon's part -- that of unilateral action, as opposed to moves made in concert with the U.S. or after negotiations with the Palestinians.

Having refused to engage in substantive peace talks as long as Arafat holds the reins of power, the Israeli leader has begun constructing a barrier to partition off the West Bank, proposed the Gaza pullout as part of a larger plan to "disengage" from the Palestinians whether or not an accord is on the horizon, and sharply stepped up military action against Hamas and similar groups.

A number of Israeli security officials have likened the "targeted killings" of Palestinian militant leaders such as Yassin to cutting off the head of a snake. But some senior Israeli field commanders believe the analogy is a flawed one. Hamas and other militant groups, they note, have repeatedly shown themselves able to regroup and recoup, sometimes coming back even stronger after a key figure is killed or incapacitated.

"Cutting off the head of the snake? It's more like mowing the grass," a ranking Israeli general told journalists not long ago. "And grass always grows back."

Israel has repeatedly liquidated successive chiefs of Hamas' military wing, the Izzidin al-Qassam, but a new one is usually in place within days or even hours. After the 1996 assassination of Hamas' then-most sophisticated bomb-making expert, Yehiya Ayash, known as "The Engineer," the group's ability to carry out attacks was temporarily hampered. But Hamas then made sure that technical know-how was better distributed down through the ranks.

Both Hamas sources and Israeli intelligence officials have indicated in the past that although Yassin was generally well-briefed about plans for suicide attacks in Israel, his tactical role was in fact a limited one. His real importance, they say, was as a figurehead and an inspiration -- a role that could be augmented rather than diminished by what his followers view as a perfectly scripted martyr's end.

Yassin's slaying comes seven months after Israel changed tactics and started targeting Hamas' political leaders, as well as its military commanders. In August, Israeli helicopter gunships incinerated a vehicle carrying one of Hamas' top political figures, Ismail abu Shanab, in a strike similar to the one that killed Yassin.

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