Israel severely undermined the American and British-led campaign to defuse anti-war rage on the streets of Muslim capitals yesterday when one of its squads assassinated a senior member of the Islamic militant group Hamas.
The illegal extra-judicial killing of Abdul Rahman Hamad is likely to infuriate Washington and its allies. They want to avoid any events that will destabilise Arab and Islamic governments that have agreed not to oppose the US-led assault on Afghanistan, despite boiling opposition to the war among Muslims at street level.
The Israeli Prime Minister admitted his forces were responsible for the killing. "This is not the first and not the last," Ariel Sharon said. "We made our stance clear regarding this issue and our stance is clear and that is how we will act." Mr Sharon's office released a statement saying Hamad bore responsibility for directing the 1 June suicide attack at a Tel Aviv disco that massacred 22 mostly Russian-speaking immigrants.
The Israeli army justified the killing by saying it had evidence that Hamad was planning another attack. Mr Sharon – whose relations with Washington are increasingly frayed – has made clear that he will place the security of Israelis above America's wider need to mollify Muslim opinion.
Hamad, 35, a prominent Hamas official, was shot dead by a sniper at he stood on his roof in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, a technique used before by Israel's deaths squads, who have assassinated dozens of Palestinians since the intifada started in September 2000. The killings have been condemned by Western governments and human rights groups. However the media – led by the BBC, CNN, Reuters and the Associated Press – have bowed to Israeli pressure by using euphemisms such as "targeted killings" or "Israel's track-and-kill policy".
Only two days before the shooting, President George Bush applauded the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for controlling "radical elements" in the occupied territories. He accomplished that by flooding the streets with his security forces, who shot dead three demonstrators, detained local journalists and banned Western correspondents from entering the Gaza Strip for 48 hours.
The assassination of Hamadimmediately sent tensions soaring anew and prompted a senior Hamas official to declare that his militant group would "definitely respond very painfully". Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, described the assassination as "a crime" that "means the Israeli promises for calm are mere lies".
A Hamas counter-attack against Israel could reignite the violence, which recently abated, reviving the risk that television screens in the Muslim world could again be filled with scenes of Palestinians being killed and bombed by the Israeli army, using American-supplied weaponry. With the spectacle of Afghan civilian corpses being dug out of the craters made by US bombs, this will make the Muslim "street" still harder to control.
President Bush and Tony Blair, who is due to meet Mr Arafat in London today, have been seeking to win over moderate Muslim opinion by stressing the need for a solution to the Palestinian problem, and dangling the prospect of a Middle East peace initiative. Their remarks are principally intended to establish calm, because the prospect of substantive negotiations seems remote.
But the assassination will raise new questions over whether Mr Sharon is trying to head off American-led pressure to push him back into peace negotiations or to discourage what he sees as a rash of pro-Palestinian remarks from Washington – including Mr Bush's public statements that eventually there "ought to be" a Palestinian state.
In particular, the assassination places new strain on an uneasy alliance reached last week between Mr Arafat – who has broadly sided with America – and the Gaza Strip's Hamas leaders, who enjoy wide popular support. The latter appeared to have concluded their interests would be ill-served by sparking an internal Palestinian conflict over the Afghan war, in which young anti-American Islamic radicals would be pitched against Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority's CIA-trained security forces. Ismael Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said on Friday: "Unity against Israeli is more important right now than opposing Arafat. We are now politically mature enough to understand this necessity." Until yesterday, there had been no suicide bombing attacks inside Israel by Hamas since the atrocities in America, although there is now a risk they will resume.
Ismael Abu Shanab confirmed that this reflects the desire within his Islamic militant group to avoid being placed by the West in the same bracket as the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Like many Palestinians, he expressed doubts over whether Osama bin Laden was the culprit, but was eager to be dissociated from him.
"Bin Laden is a person who fights America, and he has his own cause ... We in Hamas say clearly that the action against the twin towers in the USA was a criminal action, and those who are behind it should be punished. After the US began attacking civilians in Afghanistan, and when bin Laden appeared on TV relating his struggle to Palestine, you might have found individuals here who sympathised with him. But all the political groups here, including Hamas, have no connection with bin Laden."
The militants and their followers are, though, committed to fighting Israel – and are deeply hostile to the United States. Yesterday Israel ensured that this hostility would be stronger still.Reuse content