THE IRONY WAS LOST ON THE
bank of cameramen and reporters covering 9/11 Commission hearings on Capitol Hill. As the panel wondered aloud why the Bush and Clinton administrations did not move to kill Osama bin Laden when presented with opportunities to do so, protests abroad swelled against Israel for assassinating a known terrorist.
Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in the Middle East to denounce Israel's missile strike against Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin. The attack took place as dawn broke over Gaza on March 22. An Israeli helicopter gunship closed in on the Palestinian cleric-who was blind and wheelchair-bound-just as his entourage emerged from first prayers at a mosque near his home. The helicopter fired three missiles, successfully reducing Mr. Yassin and his party to mangled wreckage and pools of blood. Along with Mr. Yassin, who was 67, the missiles killed seven Hamas members, including two of his sons.
Israel has long insisted that it is fighting the same terror war as the United States and its allies. In that light Mr. Yassin is a legitimate target. The Hamas leader presided over the killing and crippling of hundreds of shopkeepers, restaurant owners, bus riders, students, and others who crossed paths with a Hamas suicide bomber in the course of everyday life.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made no secret of a plan to "downgrade" the ability of Hamas to carry out these attacks, even as he prepares a unilateral withdrawal from Jewish settlements in the terror group's homeland, Gaza. Mr. Sharon personally attended overnight preparations for the strike on Mr. Yassin from his ranch in the Negev. He had ordered a similar attack six months ago, but it failed.
But while Israelis are undoubtedly faced with daily terror threats, they are also engaged in a territorial dispute that began under international supervision (and includes 650,000 Palestinian refugees stuck in camps for more than 50 years)-and one that likely will not be resolved without outside mediation. That is why many nations, both in the region and without, protested the Yassin assassination. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called it "unlawful, unacceptable, [and] unjustified."
Others took their outrage to the streets. Palestinian refugee camps erupted in mass protests, prompting Mr. Sharon to take more security measures. He divided Gaza into three security zones, confining Palestinians within them, and sent tanks into one Gaza refugee camp. In Egypt, 2,000 university students protested at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. In Bahrain, 300 students pelted the walls surrounding the U.S. embassy, shouting "Death to America and Israel."
International scorn has never persuaded Mr. Sharon, who has moved steadily away from the latest international peace effort. The assassination follows a unilateral decision to pull Jewish residents from Gaza and Israel's controversial construction of a security fence. As with the Yassin killing, the fence gives Israelis an added sense of security from further bombings but does little to solve the long-standing territorial disputes. In fact, it exacerbates them.
Israel is hardly alone in rolling up whatever remained of the latest road map to peace. Hamas opposed the peace plan. Mr. Yassin even opposed Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority for participating in its development and subsequent talks. The intra-Palestinian rift was so damaging that 18 months ago, in a controversial gesture, Palestinian church leaders tried to bridge the Arafat-Yassin divide. Anglican bishops Riah Abu-Al-Asal and Mounib Younan, together with Catholic Patriarch Michel Sabbah met with Mr. Yassin and other Hamas leaders for two hours. They asked him to stop suicide bombings against Israeli targets. But Mr. Yassin would not agree.
The Bush administration once saw peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a logical outgrowth of Saddam Hussein's overthrow. But peace plans have taken a decided back seat to security across the region. Officials moved to reinforce installations in the Middle East-already home to the most fortified U.S. compounds in the world. The U.S. Embassy in the Emirates closed on March 24 after receiving a specific threat against it. The embassy in Saudi Arabia was briefly closed before rumors of an explosion in Riyadh turned out to be false. Threats also forced the closure of the embassy in Mauritius. Marines reinforced the downtown embassy in Cairo and chased away protesters from the embassy in Bahrain, which is also home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
In Washington, the State Department issued new cautions for its citizens traveling and living abroad, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. It cited "the heightened threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests abroad in the aftermath of the recent killing of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza."
Wheelchair or no, the Hamas founder was a man of fighting words.
"Muslims should threaten Western interests and strike them everywhere," he said a year ago in a letter to Hamas followers in Gaza. With the United States prepared to attack Iraq, he encouraged the Saddam Hussein regime to "open its borders to all Muslims across the world so that they can play their part in the defensive battle of the [Islamic] nation."
Since launching Hamas in 1986, Mr. Yassin had called for the elimination of Israel and declared violent jihad "the personal obligation of every Muslim man and woman."
Israelis blame him for inciting a wave of suicide bombings and point to a specific tally of 425 attacks since 2000 that killed 377 Israelis. The latest took place in March at Ashdod and killed 10 Israelis. Additionally, Mr. Yassin plotted a 2002 Hamas attack on Jerusalem's Hebrew University that killed five Americans.
He was plainly the "moral force" behind militant Palestinian tactics. When the Muslim Brotherhood presented eight fresh suicide bombers to a crowd of thousands at Al Azhar University in Cairo two years ago, Mr. Yassin was there via cell phone, congratulating the death squad. That same year, when a 27-year-old Palestinian woman named Wafa Idris became the terrorist movement's first female suicide bomber, he expressed only momentary reservation. She should have been accompanied by a male chaperone, he said. He later qualified that statement. Unless a female bomber is gone overnight, she does not need a chaperone.
If Israel insists it has dealt a severe blow to Palestinian terrorists, their leaders haven't received the memo yet. A Hamas statement called the assassination "insane," saying, "If for one moment the Israeli leadership imagined that assassinating the Hamas leader would stem the tide of violence, they were deluded." Hezbollah threatened to launch attacks on Israel from the north, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades issued a statement declaring "war, war, war on the sons of Zion. An eye for an eye. There will be a response within hours. Allah willing." Mohammed Mahdi Akef, speaking for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, told al Jazeera, "There can be no life for the Americans and Zionists in the region. We will not rest until they are expelled from the region."
The terrorists may be fierce, but they are also desperate. Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades sent a 16-year-old Palestinian to an Israeli roadblock on March 24 with a bomb-laden vest strapped to his body. Israeli Defense Forces jumped behind barricades, and a standoff began. The soldiers persuaded the youth to take off the vest and sent out a yellow robot to deliver scissors. The young man cut off the vest.
Without a clear and workable plan for peace, new generations of militants will continue to heed the teaching of Mr. Yassin. He once said in an interview, "The day in which I will die as a martyr will be the happiest day of my life."