Tuesday, March 23, 2004

As you probably know by now, today Israel assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of the Palestinian terrorist and civic organisation, Hamas. Ben Overlander emailed me, told me he had to face the questions of all his colleagues and asked me what I think of it all.

First of all, unlike some I've read, I don't object to the term 'spiritual leader'. I don't think it's meant to give Yassin mystique or his former actions and words legitimacy. It describes the iconic function he played and distinguishes him from Hamas leaders who get their hands 'dirtier' in the practical orchestration of suicide bombings. There is a strong argument that the distinction between the military and the civic / religious wings of Hamas is a false one. Still, while it may be disingenuous (the right hand knows what the left is doing), the nominal split exists and the different leaders of Hamas play different roles within the single organisation.

However, to say, as I've read on the BBC public message board, that Israel should be ashamed of itself for murdering "an old paraplegic in his wheelchair" is absurd. Yes, he was wheelchair-bound. But that has nothing to do with anything. As far as I know, a pair of working legs is no defence against helicopter gunships. Plus he may have looked benign and, yes, spiritual, but as the head of a group that openly targets innocents ... let's just say he was no harmless grandpa. So any sentimentalism that creeps into criticism of this assassination in particular is just risible. Perhaps Israel should be ashamed - but not because he was in a wheelchair.

The same goes for the idea that Israel has somehow exposed its true nature as a 'terrorist state'. Whether you agree with the terrorist state bit or not (I do not), the Israeli government has been carrying out this policy for years. It makes no attempt hide it, so how can anybody suggest Israel has been "exposed"?

So, what of 'targeted killings' and this one in particular? There are two main issues: the first is a question of legitimacy, the second of practical effect.

Legitimacy: Israel's 'targeted assassinations' are illegal under international law and also according to the domestic law of most democratic countries. That the United States would probably take the opportunity to do the same to Public Enemy #1 may show double standards on the part of some people but it does nothing to make extrajudicial killings more legal. OK, say some, international law is all very well, but when you are fighting for the lives of your citizens and the security of your country, worrying about international law is a luxury you can't afford. I'm not convinced. As hard as it is to 'sit by' while your citizens are killed, international law is not a luxury. It is law and as such does not apply only to unconventional killing organisations but equally - especially even - to democratic governments. Plus there is an alternative, limited application of the principle which is much more acceptable. I remember hearing someone say: the moment the suicide bomber straps on his or her explosive device he or she becomes a legitimate target. Killing that person becomes self-defense, a category recognised by most legal systems. Up to that point, even given evidence - as in this case - that the target endorses and/or causes terror, we cannot call these assassinations self-defence. Why not? Because the killing does not function as a defensive act. It saves no lives. In fact it escalates the situation and makes further deaths a greater certainty. So we have moved onto the second question: practicality.

There is no doubt in my mind that this assassination is bad news for both Israelis and Palestinians. So Hamas are now bereft of their spiritual leader. No doubt they will look to new leadership. And will they stop sending suicide bombers? Of course not. Will they send more in the coming weeks, months, who knows how long? Almost certainly. One less terrorist in the world? An assertion that makes no sense.

Counterproductive in practical terms. Of questionable legitimacy. Meanwhile here, on the streets of Jerusalem, the roadblocks and security checks get tighter and everyone braces themselves.

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