Shimon Peres, the leader of Israel's Labour opposition, said yesterday that if he had been a member of Ariel Sharon's government he would have voted against the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. "Liquidating Sheikh Yassin," he insisted, "won't liquidate terror." Rather, he said, Israel had to address the underlying cause, the 37-year occupation.
Mr Peres knew what he was talking about. As Prime Minister in January, 1996, he authorised the assassination of Yihye Ayyash, Hamas's master bomb-maker, with a booby-trapped mobile phone. Within weeks, Hamas retaliated with four bombings in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Ashkelon, which killed a total of 59 Israelis. The wave of attacks drove Israeli voters to the right and cost Mr Peres, the champion of the Oslo accords, his job.
The strategy of targeted killings, as the Israelis prefer to call them, was renewed after the current intifada broke out at the end of September, 2000. In the past two years, dozens of Palestinians - some leading Islamist and secular militants, others innocent bystanders - have died at the receiving end of F-16 bombings, Apache helicopter strikes, undercover hit squads and booby-trapped public telephones.
In the most lethal, an F-16 dropped a one-ton, laser-guided Zarit bomb on a house in a teeming Gaza suburb in July, 2002. It killed Salah Shehada, the commander of Hamas's military wing, but also took the lives of 16 of his neighbours, including 11 children. In another attack that exacted a heavy toll in "collateral damage", Israeli helicopter gunships killed Sa'id Arabid, a Hamas fighter, and seven others in Gaza a year ago.
Chastened by international condemnation and domestic soul-searching, the air force tried to limit the risk by reducing its payloads. The result was its biggest failure: the last attempt on the life of Ahmed Yassin in September, 2002. The sheikh and 10 other Hamas political leaders escaped with light injuries when an F-16 dropped a 250-kilogramme bomb on a house where they were meeting. "You will pay the price for this," Sheikh Yassin warned the Zionist enemy.
Others did not get off so lightly. Last August a helicopter-borne missile killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas political leader with a relatively moderate reputation, in revenge for the killing of 20 Jews on a Jerusalem bus.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a high-profile Hamas spokesman, escaped an assassination attempt in Gaza last June. With Sheikh Yassin out of the frame, he will now be well advised not to sleep in the same bed every night or to pray in the same mosque every morning.Reuse content