If you make people angry they won't like you, and they may do terrible things in revenge. This, in a nutshell, is the argument against the wisdom of Israel's assassination of the founder and "spiritual" leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in Gaza City yesterday morning. And it is surely true. After all, that is why Sheikh Yassin himself was a target of the Israeli military.
Few readers will need reminding that Yassin was a prime mover behind the blowing up innocent civilians in Israel, be they Muslim or Jewish, citizen or tourist, at work or at rest, by the employment of suicide bombers whose deadly loads are laced with nails and other shrapnel to cause maximum injury. Did it not occur to the higher-ups in Hamas, including the sheikh, that their bombs might draw revenge attacks in their turn? Sheikh Yassin acknowledged as much when he spoke of being a "seeker of martyrdom".
We are told by those who would seek to understand the tactics of the terrorists that their intention is to draw a violent response from the state they attack in order to radicalise the people whom they purport to represent. The sensible strategy, it is inferred, is to resist this provocation, to stick to the sort of law and order responses that would be employed against ordinary criminals: investigate, arrest, try, convict and imprison.
If this counsel of perfection had the slightest record of working, I too would advise democratically elected politicians to ignore the calls by their enraged citizenry for military responses to murderous attacks on their transport, their businesses and their places of entertainment. After all, time would vindicate that policy. But would it?
Let us remember that the goals of Hamas are not susceptible to concession or negotiation. The two-state solution, as envisaged by the Oslo agreement, would have been agreed and enacted during the last year of the Clinton administration if it weren't for the unreconcilable claims of militant minorities, such as Hamas, which in Sheikh Yassin's words consider all of the land of Israel and Palestine to be "consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgement Day".
As difficult as extremist nationalism is to mollify, that of Yassin's Hamas is worse, because he has introduced the "spiritual" element into his call for jihad. After 11 September 2001 and 11 March 2004, the nature, the tactics and the goals of Islamic militancy should be apparent to everyone. Take yesterday's statement by Hamas, quoting from the Koran, "millions of Muslims will go out to 'visit with destruction all that fell into their power'." It's hard to find a reverence for innocent life in that text.
It follows, from the logic of revenge killing, that if Hamas succeeds in upping its killing rate in response to its leader's death, then the Israelis will up their military responses in turn. The cycle of violence will be ratcheted a few notches further up. But on reflection, are we to believe that Hamas has been exercising restraint to this point?
If I turn the argument around and ask myself what Israel can hope to gain from killing the leader of Hamas, the answer seems obvious. The outlook of the generation that was present at the founding of Israel, some of whom, such as Ariel Sharon, are still in charge, was coloured by the experience of Nazism. They saw the Jews of Europe as having, for the most part, submissively accepted their murder, and they vowed that Israelis would never again be passive in the face of Jew-killing.
I know these things because my parents were of that generation, too. They were lucky to be in America, the fortuitous result of earlier Eastern European pogroms, but they lost many of their remaining relatives in the Holocaust. So I do not write from a neutral point of view, hovering indifferently above the fray.
With those emotions in mind I ask myself whether, if a Jew could have got close enough to Hitler to kill him, that would have been wrong? Immoral? Imprudent? Illegal? Would it have made his followers angry? Probably, but it would have also made a lot of other people very happy indeed, and rightly.
Hamas is not a criminal conspiracy, it is a political-religious movement that has declared war on Israel. It can hardly be immoral to kill its leaders in self-defence, and it is for that reason that Sheikh Yassin was killed. If targetted assassination of the leaders of those who are trying to kill you is illegal in international law, than international law in this respect is itself wrong. The clause that bans killing by a state of those who would murder its citizens should be nullified in accordance with the higher precept of self-protection.
The end of conflict with the IRA, although usually invoked to show the superiority of negotiation to warfare, in fact offers a different lesson. The IRA was not willing to consider anything less than the incorporation of Ulster into a united Ireland until, after 25 years of trying to crack the morale of the British, its leaders realised their war could never be won. Then they negotiated a settlement. Terror conflicts are about morale; yesterday was a good day for Israeli morale. And that makes it a good day for an eventual peace.