Sharon is dragging his people towards an abyss of perpetual war and death

Yassin is more dangerous dead than alive. He will become a ghost at every Palestinian feast, urging martyrdom


Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a far-right theocrat. If the Hamas programme he inspired is ever put into practice, the dream of Palestinian liberation will turn into a nightmare on the day of an Israeli withdrawal. He explicitly wanted to turn a Palestinian state, when it finally came into existence, into a fundamentalist state under shariah law.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a far-right theocrat. If the Hamas programme he inspired is ever put into practice, the dream of Palestinian liberation will turn into a nightmare on the day of an Israeli withdrawal. He explicitly wanted to turn a Palestinian state, when it finally came into existence, into a fundamentalist state under shariah law.

There would be no liberation for women in his Palestine. Dissenters would be dealt with as they are in all fundamentalist states. The savagery inflicted on any Jews who remained there would be too horrible to describe. I would be stoned to death there for being gay. It is understandable that some Palestinians, driven to psychosis by the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and the occupation forced on them since 1967, have sympathy for this programme. No outsider should weep for Yassin, or support Hamas.

Yet we should weep for this assassination. Some of our tears should be for the consequences in Israel itself: when Ariel Sharon gave the order to incinerate Yassin, he guaranteed the incineration of countless Israeli civilians - innocent people - in retaliation attacks. But we should grieve mostly because it reveals a startling ignorance on the part of the Israeli government. This ignorance will ensure they carry on slaying and oppressing Palestinians.

The Likud government still fails to understand the causes of suicide bombing. Encouraged by the American right, Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu imagine that suicide bombing is the work of a few evil masterminds brainwashing impressionable young people into committing suicide massacres. This is why they have killed Yassin and may yet kill Yasser Arafat. They genuinely believe that if you take out these "terror masters" the attacks will be reduced. There is only one problem: I have met young men preparing to be suicide bombers, and this analysis bears no relation to reality.

The wave of suicide bombers currently massacring civilians in Israel are the children of the first Intifada. The formative experience of their lives was watching their parents stage a massive programme of peaceful resistance to occupation. Israel's response was clear: Yitzhak Rabin gave the order to "break their bones". No brainwashing is needed to turn these men to crazed violence; they learned it in their childhood from Israeli occupiers.

All that happens when Israel kills Palestinian figureheads is that humiliation stabs deeper into their gut. Yassin will now become a ghost at every Palestinian feast, urging martyrdom. He is far more dangerous - both to Israelis and to the cause of a secular Palestinian nationalism - dead than alive.

To understand this we can listen to the explanation for terrorism offered by a man once universally regarded in Britain as "Terrorist Number One": "All we wanted was to be a free people in our own country ... our enemies called us terrorists, but we used physical force only because we were faced by physical force ... For this reason we delivered attack after attack against the oppressor, and our revolt burst into a great flame."

These are the words of Menachem Begin, who went on to become Israel's first Likud Prime Minister. He led the Irgun, a terrorist group who fought against the British occupation of Palestine in the 1940s. If anybody should understand how the unique agony of living without a state turns people to terrorism, it is the Israelis. Begin's compelling autobiography, The Revolt: Story of the Irgun, is a mirror-image of the writings of contemporary Palestinian terrorists. He coldly justifies the massacre of 91 people at the King David Hotel as "necessary" to ensure a free Israel.

It is a simple truth that if you deprive people of a state, they will fight for one. What we are witnessing today is a straightforward Palestinian war of independence. The only way to bring it to an end it is to grant independence. This can only mean a state comprising Gaza and the West Bank.

This would not be a magical solution to everything. There will still be some fanatics who seek not a two-state solution but a Greater Palestine cleansed of Jews. Yet opinion polls suggest that such Islamic fundamentalists would be a minority in a free Palestine, even after years of psychosis-inducing abuse. But how much longer can this last? How many more provocations before they are all driven mad?

The tragedy is that Israel is cursed with a leadership that is psychologically incapable of taking the road to peace. All opinion polls show that most Israeli citizens can see that Israel's only chance for survival is as one of two states, divided between the two peoples who share the tiny patch of land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet Sharon sees all Arabs as part of a seething mob with whom there can be no discussion, no reasoning, no co-existence. Peaceniks and suicide bombers, Abu Mazen and Sheikh Yassin: they are all equally murderous, and only a fool would try to compromise with such savages. Sharon grew up in Kfar Malal, a small Jewish village that was eternally besieged by Palestinians. This sense of an absolute threat - they're coming for us, pass the ammunition - has never left him. For Sharon, the entire Middle East is an eternal Kfar Malal.

He is tipping Israel/Palestine towards a situation from which there can be no return. At the moment, a majority of Palestinians seek their own state divided from Israel along the 1967 borders. This is an agenda which can be met while leaving Israel safe and intact. Yet Sharon making it impossible to return to those borders, by constructing a fence that cuts deep into Palestinian territories.

The effect of this will not be what Sharon hopes: that the Palestinians will be so terrified that they will settle for the scraps that Likud is prepared to leave behind after a unilateral withdrawal. No; it will be that Palestinians will ditch the goal of two states altogether.

Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, made this clear when he explained that Sharon's unilateral moves would render the drive for a Palestinian state a "meaningless slogan." No viable state could exist on what Sharon proposes to - perhaps - leave behind. So the Palestinian goal will change.

"If the situation continues as it is now, we will go for the one-state solution," Qureia says. One big state encompassing both the Occupied Territories and Israel proper would mean an Arab majority and the end of Israel. Sharon - by refusing to see the difference between moderate and extreme Palestinians - is pushing the Palestinians further away from secular moderation and towards Hamas fanaticism and a thirst to eradicate all Israel. He has just united all Palestine behind a Hamas fanatic.

If one state becomes the Palestinian raison d'etre there will be perpetual war with no possibility of compromise, and I will still be writing laments for peace in the Middle East when I am an old man. This is the abyss towards which Sharon is dragging his people. Unless he radically changes direction, his legacy will be rows of Jewish and Arab graves stretching out into infinity.

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