A Legacy of Pain and Poison

The oddest thing about the commentary that followed the killing of the Hamas leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in Gaza was the assertion in the Arab world and much of Europe that the “rules of engagement” between Israel and the Palestinians had been breached and the assassination crossed the “red lines” of this conflict. But for Hamas, there had been no “red lines”–attacks on buses and nightclubs had long shredded the norms of legitimate enmity. And the distinction between a “military wing” and a “political wing” of Hamas was always a distinction without a difference. In many ways, it is an affront to the victims of terrorism, a hoax. Nor can the claims of Egypt’s president, and its religious leaders, that the attack on Yassin had been cruel and needless because it was an attack on a quadriplegic old man be given a hearing. The Gaza-based cleric gave terrorism moral sanction. He was no less a menace than the blind preacher, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who had sown mayhem in his native Egypt and on American soil. Abdel Rahman was no less dangerous for his blindness.

Terrorism probes the world, tests its limits, and always redefines our moral awareness downward. We can’t say for sure what the contribution of Yassin was to the wholesale slaughter of September 11. Strictly speaking, the “death pilots” were not his men. But in hindsight, the terrors visited on Israel by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were a dress rehearsal for greater terrors to come. The young men–and, in time, the young women–with explosive belts in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the restaurants of Haifa were a herald of more terrible calamities. The way to perdition had been found: The cult of “martyrdom” had been sanctified. Religion had been remade; from solace and ritual it had been changed into a weapon of combat.

A “terrible alternative.”

Yassin had been part of the radicalization that overtook the politics of Islam in the 1980s. His roots were to be found in the Muslim Brotherhood. Its founder was an Egyptian named Hassan al-Banna. He preached a simple doctrine: the Koran in one hand, the gun in the other. It was in the shadow of the intifada, the Palestinian uprising in Gaza, in December 1987, that the sheik found his role. The political restraint of his early years gave way. There were potential foot soldiers of terror, gullible young men and women, and Yassin offered them zeal and holy war. The worldview of Hamas was vintage Muslim Brotherhood, full of loathing for the Jews and the promise that the “children of Israel” would be undone by the sacrifices of the “martyrs.” Nor did Yassin have much use for the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leaders: In the sermons and leaflets of Hamas, those men of the “secular” world, Yasser Arafat and his lieutenants, were “wine drinkers and pork eaters” who had lost their way.

The promise of the peace of Oslo of a decade ago was that the Palestinian National Authority would rein in these religious die-hards. This was the bargain that had plucked Arafat from his exile in Tunis and bequeathed him a turf in the West Bank and Gaza. But Arafat had not come to Gaza to govern. He had uses for the foot soldiers and leaders of Hamas. They were the “terrible alternative” he could always point to when he was pressed to make diplomatic concessions; they were his alibi for reforms he would never make, and an accommodation with Israel he would never pursue in good faith. A circle was closed: It was the corruption of the Arafat regime met by the violence of Hamas. In time, Arafat would make his choice: He would match Hamas’s terrorism with terrorist cells of his own. Thus the fireman turned out to be an arsonist.

One day, there may step forth a Palestinian generation that is done with homicide bombers and the cult of violence. In this better vision of things, there would be no preachers glorifying violence against noncombatants; religion would return to its proper functions. There would be sober acceptance that the Palestine of the imagination is no more, and that partition is the inevitable outcome of this fight for the land. A leader would tell the multitudes that the Jews are there to stay. The Gaza sheik was made of different stuff. It is easy to see that he had no mercy for Israelis. But a harder truth can be read into his life: He had no mercy for his own either. Those children, reading their wills and testaments on their way to homicidal missions, are proof of the cruelty and the indifference and the waste of it all.


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