Foreign Policy

Assassination Tango

Like it or not, Israel's war with Hamas is America's, too


The repercussions of Israel's "extrajudicial killing" (read: assassination) of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and head of the Islamist militant organization Hamas, have only begun to be felt. In the immediate echoes of the explosion, however, came confirmation of two unpleasant truths. First, the war on terror really is a war, and not a police action. Second, America's terror war and Israel's are not separable, however much we might wish they were.

On March 22, in Gaza, Israel shot a helicopter-fired missile at Yassin. Reaction was swift and scathing. The British condemned the attack as an "unlawful killing." The European Union said that extrajudicial killings were "contrary to international law." Turkey's prime minister said, "This was a terrorism incident." Most of the United Nations Security Council lined up behind an Algerian resolution condemning "the most recent extrajudicial execution committed by Israel" and denouncing "all attacks against any civilians as well as all acts of violence and destruction."

The United States vetoed the resolution but did not directly challenge its premises, which were that Yassin was a civilian, that civilians are subject only to civil punishment, and that extrajudicial violence of any sort is therefore illegitimate. Instead, the Bush administration said it was "deeply troubled" by the Yassin killing but that the resolution should also have mentioned Hamas's attacks against Israel. See? Everyone is a terrorist, but the resolution should have named all the terrorists. Or something.

If those are the rules, then former President Clinton is a terrorist, for he, too, ordered a hit. Clinton attacked Osama bin Laden with a cruise missile and only narrowly missed. According to The New York Times, President Clinton's national security advisers have testified to the September 11 commission "that Mr. Clinton wanted Mr. bin Laden dead."

The rap on Clinton, of course, is not that he tried to kill bin Laden but that he failed. Last week, while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being fricasseed for hitting Yassin, the September 11 commission was grilling Clinton's former secretaries of State and Defense for missing bin Laden. Even by Washington's standards, the inconsistency was glaring. Whatever the tactical differences between the two cases, morally they are indistinguishable.

Yassin, it is often noted, was a political and spiritual figure rather than a bomb-builder. He was a charismatic leader who inspired and broadly directed the Hamas organization, leaving the operational details of bombings to shadowy subordinates. All true. And true in equal measure of bin Laden. Yassin, notes the Council on Foreign Relations in a fact sheet on Hamas, gave "fiery sermons in a soft voice." That sounds familiar.

America has lost a few thousand people to Al Qaeda. Israel, with a population one-fiftieth the size, has lost hundreds to Hamas. August 19, 2003: 23 killed, including mother and baby, and father and son, and four other children, on a bus in Jerusalem. June 11, 2003: 17 killed on another Jerusalem bus. March 5, 2003: 15 killed on a bus in Haifa. March 27, 2002: 30 killed at a Passover seder in Netanya. (Hamas supporters were particularly outraged that Yassin was killed at a mosque entrance during morning prayers.) The list of Hamas's atrocities goes on, literally, for page after numbing page.

Unlike Al Qaeda, Hamas maintains extensive social and political operations. It owes much of its popularity among Palestinians to its network of charity associations in the West Bank and Gaza and, even more, to its reputation for incorruptibility—in stark contrast to the Palestinian Authority of the corrupt and incompetent Yasir Arafat.

Hamas's civilian operations, however, hardly made Yassin a civilian in any sense that mattered. To the contrary, he was head of a terrorist organization that is well on its way to operating its own mini-state in Gaza. State sponsors of terrorism and terrorist sponsors of states (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan) are two sides of one coin. None of these entities are or were "civilian" in the sense of being ordinary criminals. The primary instruments with which to deal with them are not arrest warrants and courts but diplomatic pressure and, if necessary, military action.

That was why Clinton had every right to drop a cruise missile on bin Laden. Clinton understood that Al Qaeda was making war on America, even if neither he nor the public yet understood the stakes.

Isn't the context different? There are no peace talks with Al Qaeda that a hit on bin Laden might derail, but the Middle East requires a diplomatic solution, which Israel's heavy-handed violence threatens to foreclose. Right?

Not really. There is at present no peace process in the Middle East, just a forlorn plan for one, fluttering in the wind. Hamas, more than any other single factor, is responsible for that. Like Al Qaeda, Hamas is a radical Islamist organization that swears it will not rest until it has brought Muslim territory under Islamic rule. For Al Qaeda, the territory at issue is the whole of the Arab world, plus the Spanish peninsula and other parts of Europe, plus ideally North America; for Hamas, the relevant territory is all of Palestine, meaning all of today's Israel plus the occupied territories. The theaters are different, but the battles—America's against Al Qaeda, Israel's against Hamas—are of a piece.

"Peace talks will do no good," Yassin's successor in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, has said. "We do not believe we can live with the enemy." Hamas's founding covenant, issued in 1988, is a chilling document, as twisted as anything from Al Qaeda. "Israel will…continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it," begins the covenant. Palestine, it continues, is an Islamic holy possession, to be recovered by force. "Initiatives and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences are in contradiction" to Hamas's mission. "There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by jihad."

The document drips with anti-Semitism. "The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them." The Zionists' plan to take over all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates "has been laid out in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." But Hamas also regards the secular Palestinian Authority as an enemy, to be replaced with an Islamic state.

Because Hamas has no interest in a negotiated settlement, and because Arafat has proved unable to suppress or co-opt it, the conflict in the Middle East has become largely a war between Israel and Hamas, with Hamas's extremist competitors playing me-too and Arafat sulking in the rubble of his compound. Establishing a larger, longer-term peace is a diplomatic and political problem. But the immediate problem with Hamas, like the problem with Al Qaeda, requires military action. Whether by Israel, Palestinians, or both, Hamas must be defeated, crippled, co-opted, or marginalized, or there can be no peace.

America need not and should not approve of whatever measures Israel chooses to take in its war with Hamas. The two countries' interests and positions differ, and the fact that a terrorist can legitimately be killed does not always make killing him smart. Many people, including Israelis, think the Yassin assassination will prove counterproductive and will undercut Palestinian secularists without weakening Hamas. As yet, no one can claim to know.

What is clear, however, is that what America is doing against Al Qaeda and what Israel is doing against Hamas are the same kind of thing, and that thing is not "extrajudicial killing" or "terrorism," but war. Denying that the war is a war has consequences—among them, reluctance to do what is necessary to win. A clever combatant knows that wars are won by many means (many of them nonmilitary) but that killing the other guy before he kills you is one of them. Is killing a Yassin or a bin Laden "extrajudicial"? Yes, but so is the war against militant Islamism. And our side didn't start it.

And it is one war, not many, albeit one war waged on many fronts. Hamas and Al Qaeda are organizationally distinct but ideologically joined at the hip. Both are anti-Semitic, anti-Western, and dedicated to extinguishing secular politics in what they regard as Islamic lands. Although Hamas has concentrated on Israeli interests while Al Qaeda concentrated on American ones, even that gap is narrowing—inevitably, now that America is making a priority of bringing secular democracy to the Middle East.

It was no accident that Rantisi, in one of his first actions as Yassin's successor, declared that President Bush is the enemy of Muslims and that God has declared war on the United States. Hamas has connected the dots—even if many people, including many Americans, have not.