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State Assassination

When the Israelis assassinated the Hammas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin this week the world passed judgement.  The western leaders who went to a great deal of trouble to assassinate Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein seemed somewhat hypocritical in their condemnation; as did the Muslim state leaders who protect the terrorists who regularly assassinate innocent people in buses, trains and restaurants.  The rest of us have to try to work it out for ourselves.

Whilst there might be an infinite range of nuances there are only four fundamental issues to consider: is it legal; is it ethical; is it justified; does it make tactical sense.

Is it Legal?
The legal issue is possibly the most complicated.  It is generally accepted that if one sovereign state makes war on another sovereign state the second state is legally justified in protecting itself, even to the extent of killing.  No individual or country has been charged with war crimes for killing an opposing general during a state of war.  But what is the appropriate response when the aggressor is not a sovereign state?  The Basque separatists operate from within Spain, so that is a domestic matter.  The Spanish government attempts to respond to bombings through the courts. The IRA operated out of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which meant that the British Government had to seek co-operation from Dublin.  Whitehall attempted to capture, prosecute and imprison the bombers, and when it was rumoured that British soldiers had orders to shoot and kill this was a scandal that rumbled on for years.

The hijackings and killings of September 11 moved the world to a different kind of confrontation.  A terrorist organisation operating out of several countries had, in effect, declared war on the USA.  No one questioned the legal right of the USA to use military force to attempt to track down and kill the perpetrators.  This was not war as we had previously known it, between sovereign states, or between civil factions of a single state, but it was a war being waged by two parties intent on destruction.  United Nations ratified the invasion of Afghanistan as the USA and her allies attempted to capture or kill the leaders of al-Qaeda.

The subsequent invasion of Iraq was not ratified by the UN and (outside of the US and the UK) was generally accepted as an illegal act.  Iraq did not have international terrorist links and posed no threat to the US or to Europe.

The Threat of Hammas
The organisation known as Hammas operates out of Palestine.  Itís declared intent is to eliminate the State of Israel, and has set out to achieve this with a brutal agenda, the chief component of which seems to the killing of innocent Jews as they go about their daily lives.  In the world after September 11 this has to be regarded as an act of war in just the same way as the attack on the Twin Towers.  If Palestine fails to curb the activities of Hammas how can we tell Israel they have no legal right to deal with Hammas leaders in the same way that the Americans targeted Bin Laden?

Is it Ethical?
The second question is clearer.  Whilst religious teachings suggest everything from turning the other cheek to claiming an eye for an eye, most individuals would not be questioned on moral or ethical grounds if they used appropriate action in self-defence or in the defence of those incapable of self-defence.  This only becomes complicated when one tries to determine what is appropriate; what defensive action is justifiable in the given circumstances.  And this is where the Israeli assassination becomes questionable.  Ahmed Yassin was not as claimed a spiritual leader.  His exhortations had everything to do with the physical and political world and nothing to do with spiritual values.  Nevertheless, if Israel could fly a gunship helicopter to the front of the mosque to kill him and whoever else got in the way, they probably had the capability of landing and capturing him before he made his wheelchair get-away.  It is difficult to justify the assassination as the only line of self-defence available to a powerful state.

Does it Make Sense?
Finally, does the action make sense?  Does this assassination help to reduce the threat to Israel posed by Hammas?  Does it help to reduce the threat to democracy posed by militant fundamental Muslims?  It is certainly the same tactic attempted by the West in dealing with the leaders of al-Qaeda, but so far the results have not been encouraging.  Traditionally, war has been fought until one side has been rendered less powerful and is battered into submission.  The 1914-18 war is evidence that this tactic is not very effective, but almost a century later it is still being employed, even though the widespread and loosely knit small bands of terrorists are not capable of being battered. 

The Islamic terrorist threat is in response to a perceived threat by the West.  The more aggression shown by the West, the more that perception is hardened, and the more recruits will be attracted to the terrorist cause.  Terrorism cannot be bombed or assassinated out of existence.  It has to be marginalized.  We in the west have to take on board that for centuries our influence on Muslim states has not been welcome.   Escalating the confrontation is not the answer; we need to pull back from the brink and walk away.  We need to stop beaming our satellite entertainment channels to an unwilling audience, and stop regarding Islam as a lucrative market for our consumer products.  Until such time as it takes for our actions to be accepted as genuine we may need to close our borders to further immigration from Islamic states, but eventually the religious leaders will cease to call for action against a West that has disappeared from their lives.  It does not fit the macho image we cultivate, but that is the sensible tactic to use in this war.

Israel Seizing the Initiative
It is not so easy for Israel, rising Phoenix-like in the middle of a hostile area, but the same principle applies.  If Israel wishes to seize the initiative she must dismantle the wall, abandon the settlements, and demonstrate that Israel does not have ideas of expansion.  Some fanatics may continue to call for the extermination of the State of Israel, but moderate support for such fanatics will eventually wither.

Throughout history, terrorist activity has required very small numbers.  The more publicity afforded to their actions, and the easier it becomes to attract more recruits.  Terrorism cannot be assassinated. Legally and morally sound or not: if it doesnít make sense, donít do it!


© Harvey Tordoff
March 2004