The Assassination of Sheik Yassin and Israel’s Push for U.S. Support of Annexation of Settlements

Wednesday 31 March 2004, by Phyllis BENNIS

The assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin marks a serious escalation in Israeli occupation tactics. While Israel had (in earlier assassination attempts) already crossed the "red line" that once defined some limits in aggressive acts, its message in the Yassin murder was that there are no limits, that Israel’s military attacks face no restrictions. Counting accurately on Washington’s unwillingness to challenge its aggression, the assassination also ushers in a new Israeli campaign to win official U.S. support for wide-spread annexation of major West Bank settlements as part of Tel Aviv’s "unilateral withdrawal from Gaza" plan.

"Targeted assassination" is murder; it stands in clear violation of international law. The Israeli action and the U.S. refusal to condemn it make a mockery of international law.

Killing is an absolute prohibition; international law does not allow exceptions for "ticking bombs," or anything else. Article 3(I) of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 "prohibits at any time and in any place" (a) "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds" and (d) "the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized people."

In the case of Sheik Yassin, the Israeli claim that he was responsible for earlier suicide attacks (which, when they target civilians, are indeed a violation of international law) does not provide legal justification. Those who claim that Sheik Yassin does not merit protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention because he supported suicide bombings should note that "protected persons" are identified as those "taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces ... placed hors de combat [out of combat] by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause." It is hard to imagine a clearer example of someone "out of combat by sickness" than a 67-year-old quadriplegic cleric, wheelchair-bound, largely deaf and mostly blind. The assassination has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Union, and virtually every government in the world with the exception of the United States.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan "strongly condemned" the assassination. It was an important and unmistakable departure from the usual UN position of "condemning" only Palestinian operations, while "deploring" (a lower level of diplomatic criticism) illegal actions by the Israeli occupation forces. The European Union and key European governments, including that of close U.S. ally Tony Blair in Great Britain, all condemned the assassination. The reluctant and tolerant U.S. response, after initially refusing to characterize the act at all, appeared to come in response to European pressure. However, the Bush administration refused to condemn the assassination. The White House spokesman would only describe the administration as being "deeply troubled" by the murder of Yassin, and refused even to restate for the record the longstanding U.S. policy that officially rejects extra-judicial assassination.

As declared by Condoleezza Rice, the administration’s claim that "we believe" Sheik Yassin "might be" responsible for some attacks, places the U.S. in even starker violation of international and U.S. law. Murdering someone, let alone seven others, because someone "believes" they "might" be responsible for even the most heinous crime defies any claimed commitment, however limited, to the rule of law.

Israel’s assassination of Sheik Yassin, like other extra-judicial killings before it, also killed others, in this case including family and bodyguards of the Sheik as well as bystanders.

The inevitability of "collateral damage" furthers the illegality of such acts. The additional killings also render even more likely the escalation of reprisal violence and the deaths of more civilians. On two separate occasions in past years Israeli forces arrested and held Sheik Yassin for long prison terms. If Israel had evidence of Yassin’s actual involvement in murder, as opposed to inspiring or even approving of such acts, it could have arrested him. Given Israel’s current full military access to the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, there is little doubt that a similar arrest could have been made. And while such arrests may or may not be in compliance with other international laws, they certainly demonstrate unequivocally that assassination was not the only option available.

Israel’s timing of the assassination was carefully chosen for reasons linked to its reliance on U.S. support. The assassination was committed at a moment when there was virtually no likelihood of the Bush administration responding seriously to hold Israel accountable for its actions.

1. As the U.S. election campaign heats up, criticism of Israel from any candidate becomes almost impossible. 2. Particularly in light of Richard Clarke’s allegations, the Bush administration is on the defensive for their failures in the "war on terrorism." They are thus less likely to take a position that could make them vulnerable to charges of being soft on terrorism, or insufficiently supportive of Israel’s "anti-terrorism" actions. 3. The U.S. is hunting Osama bin Laden on a "dead or alive" basis, and is thus unable to criticize its ally’s use of similar deadly tactics against Sheik Yassin regardless of the clear differences in victim and circumstance. This was the key reason for administration spokespeople refusing even to repeat the pre-existing U.S. position officially disavowing targeted assassinations. The assassination was also timed for maximum influence on events inside Palestine. The assassination of Sheik Yassin was carried out, like other escalations before it, as part of Israel’s answer to on-going negotiations among Palestinian forces that could have led to a significant diminution of violence. Although Sharon’s announced plans for a "unilateral withdrawal" of settlers and soldiers from much of Gaza has escalated tensions, the Palestinian Authority and key Islamist factions, including Hamas, were negotiating plans for how to govern Gaza in the event of an actual Israeli withdrawal. The negotiations could have led to a calm, orderly assertion of unified Palestinian authority instead of a chaotic, violent transition. The assassination will almost certainly have the (fully anticipated) effect of derailing those negotiations.

The assassination also reflected Sharon’s determination not to allow anyone to claim that his withdrawal plan had anything to do with Palestinian attacks. It was designed to reinforce the perception of the vast disparity of power between Israel and Palestine.

Inside Israel, the assassination was well timed to strengthen Sharon’s threatened political support.

Popular support for the assassination among Israelis reached 60%, although 80% believed it would lead to more violence. Support would be particularly high among Sharon’s most right-wing constituency, especially settlers, who were raising questions about his Gaza withdrawal plan. Bolstering that flagging support was particularly critical for Sharon because of the imminence of his likely indictment on money-laundering charges and the resulting calls for him to resign.

Israel is using Sharon’s announced plan for withdrawal from Gaza as the basis for demanding that the U.S. endorse permanent Israeli annexation of major illegal West Bank settlements as a quid pro quo. Such an action would confirm once again that U.S. policy of empowering Israel’s illegal occupation with financial, military, and diplomatic support stands in clear violation of international law.

It had already been rumored, and was confirmed on 26 March, that Israeli officials, in Washington ahead of Sharon’s planned April 14th White House meeting, are demanding U.S. approval for permanent Israeli annexation of the Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Ma’ale Adumim settlements in any future Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Almost 75,000 Israeli settlers inhabit the three large settlements, all built illegally on occupied Palestinian land. The issue was first raised in February when a high-level U.S. delegation, led by Bush’s top Middle East advisor, the convicted Iran-contra defendant Elliot Abrams, along with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s deputy Stephen Hadley, and the State Department’s William Burns, visited the region for talks with Israeli officials. The Israeli request for endorsement of the plan to resettle Gaza settlers in West Bank settlements and to annex the three largest WB settlements as a permanent part of Israel, in exchange for withdrawing most or even all settlers from Gaza, was first raised ahead of the U.S. officials’ visit. But the delegation was silent on the issue when they returned from Israel.

Reports indicate that Israel will also press the Bush administration to endorse Israel’s right to retaliate, perhaps to re-occupy, Palestinian lands if there are any future attacks. Tel Aviv wants the U.S. to agree that any future territorial agreement will be predicated on a Palestinian "crack-down on terrorism." And Israel also wants a U.S. guarantee that any future agreement will exclude the Palestinian right of return.

The U.S. should oppose any Israeli effort to annex any settlements built on occupied Palestinian land, oppose any Israeli "right" to enter Palestinian territory, and oppose any agreement that denies Palestinians the right of return - which is already guaranteed in international law. Any U.S. acquiescence to such Israeli acts would represent a further U.S. violation of international law, would further undermine any future U.S. claim of acting as an "honest broker" in the conflict, and would strengthen Israel’s ability to avoid its own obligations under international law.

The Bush administration appears divided on the issue. So far there is no clear approach on the issues of return and Israel’s possible re-occupation.

Some officials are claiming that maintaining permanent Israeli control over the three settlements (all large, relatively long-standing cities built on expropriated Palestinian land) is inevitable in any future peace agreement, so why not accept it as a "fact on the ground." Others, some of whom also appear tactically concerned about the consequences of such an endorsement in the wake of the Yassin assassination, seem to believe that U.S. support for annexation should reflect how far and how much Israel is prepared to withdraw from Gaza, and perhaps on how it defines its future rights to send Israeli troops back into Palestinian territory. In other words, they believe that if the Gaza pull-out is significant, the U.S. should validate Israel’s permanent annexation of huge swathes of West Bank territory as a reward. There appears to be a majority view within the administration that, as the New York Times described it, "they would like to announce American support of the withdrawal [from Gaza], in part because they think it would demonstrate the success of Mr. Bush’s approach in the region."

There is no indication anyone in the Bush administration is concerned about the illegality, under international law or existing UN resolutions, of endorsing the annexation of illegal settlements built on stolen land.

This story was first published on the Institute for Policy Studies website.

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