TOPICS > Politics

Targeting Hamas

July 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: For reaction and analysis, we turn to Meyrav Wurmser, senior fellow and director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, a policy research organization in Washington. She’s an Israeli who has lived in this country for the past decade. Glenn Robinson, an associate professor in national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He’s studied in both Israel and Jordan, and done independent research in the West Bank and Gaza. And Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history, and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. Welcome to you all.

Ms. Wurmser, beginning with you. Why did Israel target Salah Shehadeh, target him and in this manner with such a controversial operation that killed so many civilians?

MEYRAV WURMSER: Well, they targeted him, I think, because of his deep involvement with both the military wing of the Hamas and also because of his new role as one of the new spiritual leaders of the movement. There was some talk about Shehadeh becoming possibly the heir to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who is the spiritual leader of the movement. He has also been incredibly important in the developments of rockets – the Kasam I and Kasam II rockets — that have been recently come into the possession of the Hamas. So for all these reasons they had to target him.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, your reaction. I assume you don’t see that as a justification.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think there are a couple of points that should be made. One is the timing of this. At a moment when there is a period of calm, at a moment when there was an offer from both Hamas and earlier from Islamic Jihad to refrain from violence against Israeli civilians, we see a repetition of a pattern that should by now be familiar to anybody who pays a little bit of attention, which is that Israel seems to launch these strikes with disregard for civilian casualties at moments when some progress on the political level might be made. That would be my first reaction.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Robinson, your analysis both of the targeting and the timing.

GLENN ROBINSON: Well I think both Mey and Rashid are correct. Mey is correct in the sense that this is consistent with an Israeli pattern of assassinations of various Hamas and popular front and other leaders. And I think Rashid raises an important point that these assassinations do tend to come during periods of calm. And one has to ask why that’s the case.

MARGARET WARNER: Why is that the case, Ms. Wurmser?

MEYRAV WURMSER: Well, I think that the definition of the current period as a period of calm is kind of an ambiguous and interesting use of the concept calm. Just last week we saw two major terrorist attacks take place in Israel. So the question is calm for whom — or calm for what? Just because Hamas has decided to talk about a truce for now when we know that even in their, I mean, their ideology talks about the possibility of a truce with Israel, but it also talks about it in the context of the agreement signed by the prophet Mohammed, with some of the Jewish tribes at the time of his conquest. That was the idea of signing a temporary truce after which you are, you know, you resume activity of war and violence. So, I certainly don’t think that we can consider this past week or two a period of calm.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi.

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, it hasn’t been a period of calm. There were 30 Palestinian civilians killed in the past few weeks. Those are never mentioned by the American media in addition to the two operations that Ms. Wurmser mentioned. But the fact that there was a possibility of a movement towards some kind of withdrawal of Israeli forces links to a reciprocal ceasing of attacks on Israeli civilians makes one wonder whether the Sharon government is not afraid of that because that coalition headed by the prime minister would probably collapse if they had to do any of the things that the President put forward in his speech or which has been asked of Israel as quid pro quo for the things that are the many heavy demands that have been placed on the Palestinians.

I’m not suggesting that was the reason that this attack was carried out. I’m simply pointing out that it has been a case that when there is a diminution of this hideous cycle of violence in which it has to be repeated since the media never says it, three times as many Palestinians have been killed and 35,000 wounded over the past two years, when there’s a diminution in this hideous cycle of violence Israel always seems to find a pressing reason to assassinate somebody.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Robinson, tell us a little more about Hamas, its founding, its goals.

GLENN ROBINSON: Hamas is in effect the break- off group from the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brethren, which is an organization that’s found in a number of Arab countries, founded in 1928. Basically in the 1980s a lot of the Islamists, members of the Muslim Brethren in the West Bank and Gaza, came under severe pressure, that they were not confronting the occupation hard enough, that they were complicit with Israel. And in response to this, there was a generation of people who really grew up, went through the university system in the 1980s that are very well educated, very modern, if you will, and took a much more kind of hard- line approach to Israel, much more willing to confront the occupation directly.

These two strands within the Muslim Brethren really came to a head with the beginning of Intifada, the first Intifada that started in the end of 1997, as to whether Hamas was — the Muslim Brethren was going to confront the occupation, participate in the uprising or not. And basically it’s what I think some people call a second stratum, that came to the fore, that was very much engaged with confronting the occupation that cooperated a lot with the nationalist forces, and that was really the birth of Hamas.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, we always– and I think we did tonight again– describe this as a radical Islamic group — differentiating it from, say, the more secular PLO, Palestinian Authority and its military wing. How really religious or Islamic is this group and how different is it in its aims and objectives from the Palestinian Authority, the PLO and Fattah?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, the constituents of the PLO that form the Palestinian Authority are secular nationalist groups. They have no overt or covert religious agenda. Hamas is, as Professor Robinson suggested, an outgrowth of the Muslim brotherhood. Its objective is the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine. It is and has remained — it’s important to note — a minority. That is to say it has never gotten majority support in any polls. It has, generally speaking, been able to mobilize those Palestinians who either feel that violence against Israel is necessary and/or those Palestinians who have a sort of Islamic vision for the future of Palestine, a minority but an important one.

MARGARET WARNER: Just to follow up. You said its vision was an Islamic state in Palestine.

RASHID KHALIDI: In all of Palestine.

MARGARET WARNER: Including what is now Israel.

RASHID KHALIDI: Absolutely. Hamas’ theology leaves no room for the existence of the state of Israel. As Ms. Wurmser said, they’ve talked in the past about truces and some Hamas leaders have even talked about arrangements that would be long term for living alongside Israel but basically Hamas’ ideology does not leave any room for a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Wurmser, there are persistent reports that the state of Israel actually helped nurture Hamas. Are those true? If so, when and why?

MEYRAV WURMSER: Well, yeah, I have seen these reports. Of course I cannot confirm them one way or the other. I don’t know. Rumors have it that Israel indeed helped in the establishment of Hamas to some extent or assisted in it under the attempt to bring radicals under its control, namely rather than letting them go and do something that you could not control or that could turn out to be, you know, extremely, extremely violent. The idea was maybe you could control it better if you helped them create an organization and then just kept an open eye, it would be all organized into one group, you could–

MARGARET WARNER: He can penetrate it.

MEYRAV WURMSER: Exactly. You could sort of know who does what to whom in there. And it would all be somehow more controllable. Unfortunately reality has proven it to be less than effective.

GLENN ROBINSON: As it did in many countries.

MEYRAV WURMSER: That’s true.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Robinson.

GLENN ROBINSON: Israel did nothing different than a lot of Arab countries during the ’70s and early ’80s opposition both to a number of Arab regimes such as in Egypt and Jordan and elsewhere was viewed to be secular nationalists, the Nasserists, the Pan Arabists, if you will. And in many of these countries and in the case of Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, there were clear assistance, usually — by assistance I’m not talking about cash payments or arms or what have you, but space. Space to mobilize, space to organize was provided to the Muslim Brethren in the West Bank and Gaza that was denied at the PLO in a typical divide-and-conquer strategy to basically pit the PLO versus the Muslim Brethren.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Khalidi, what do you think is going to be the impact of last night’s killing?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, there will be an upsurge in violence. This would seem to be what was intended by the authors of this assassination, particularly by targeting an apartment block in a heavy crowded part of Gaza City with a certainty at nighttime of large numbers of casualties. It would appear that the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth policy is in operation.

Both the extremes, the extremists who rule Israel and the current Israeli government and Hamas believe deeply in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So we will have more bloodshed. It was intended by Israel and I think will be happily received that those people who have been trying to negotiate, those people who have been arguing against attacks on Israeli civilians will be undermined. And there will be nobody left standing but people with whom Israel would be happy to slug it out. I think Israel is going for a complete military victory here. I don’t think this government intends to negotiate under any circumstances.

MEYRAV WURMSER: Well, what I wanted to say is that Professor Khalidi, I think, you know, raises some interesting points but I think that he does the common mistake of talking about a cycle of violence, an eye for an eye. This is not a cycle. This is something that had a beginning and an end point after Camp David.

MARGARET WARNER: I don’t want to interrupt you but we’re almost out of time. What do you think the impact is going to be?

MEYRAV WURMSER: Well, there are two options or two sides to the impact. One is a reduction in terrorism possibly because a major operative was killed, another one, as Professor Khalidi said is the possibility of revenge and more terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Robinson briefly to you on that same point. What do you think is going to be the outcome here and particularly on this process that the U.S. has been working with, with some moderate Arab states to try to get reform of the Palestinian Authority with an eye to elections in January? I mean, is that all derailed now? What happens?

GLENN ROBINSON: This is not new, right? This has happened before. We have a pattern both of the Israeli attack and how Palestinians respond. In every case there may have been a lull for a brief period but Hamas and other groups have been quite capable of creating new leaderships. This is not – you know — cut off the head and the body dies, so there’s no question that there Shehadeh – there will be a replacement for him, and the cycle of violence will continue, and I think it’s going to likely undermine the very fragile attempts that have begun to seek a way out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professors Robinson and Khalidi and Ms. Wurmser, thank you all three.