Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Transition 2

As the Belmont Club predicted, the hudna is dead. The next "strongman" who fights his way to the top of the Hamas will oppose any truce at all.

Gaza City, March 23. (AP): Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a hardliner who opposes even a temporary truce with Israel, is emerging as a Hamas strongman in the Palestinian areas after the assassination of the group's founder, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. However, Rantisi, a 54-year-old pediatrician, is not expected to replace Yassin or take over the group. Since its creation in 1987, Hamas has been run largely as a collective of senior activists in Gaza and the Arab world, with Yassin in a key role as ideologue, spiritual leader and strategist. Hamas leaders said that while the killing of Yassin is a blow to morale, it would not hamper the group's operations, including its ability to carry out attacks. Hamas is pledged to Israel's destruction. Hamas is secretive about its organisation, though the broad outlines are known. General policy is set by the political bureau, headed by Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Damascus, Syria. Other members of the bureau include several Hamas leaders in the Arab world, as well as Rantisi, Hanieh and Mahmoud Zahar in Gaza.

The left wing journalist Paul McGeogh agrees that this means war and believes it will be a bad thing for Israel, almost as bad as President Bush angering Al Qaeda.

Like Israel's deliberate campaign to weaken Yasser Arafat, Yassin's execution will do to the Palestinians what the "war on terror" has done to al-Qaeda - fracture the leadership, leaving angered and autonomous cells to exact revenge, competing with each other for greater body counts as their leaders compete to fill the leadership vacuum.

Reader JL has a much more sophisticated analysis than Paul McGeogh, one that is probably nearer the truth.

Decapitation strikes (during the Cold War) were thought of as counterproductive, because in killing or incapacitating Soviet leadership, you would have no one to negotiate with to end the war. The Israelis face the converse, but more complex problem. Negotiation with the PA is useless if HAMAS or any other third party can come in and queer the pitch. In helping to decapitate HAMAS, the Israelis have strengthened the PA position as the sole representative of the Palestinians. The PA is the clear winner in the Yassin killing, as one of Arafat's strongest rivals is gone. Also, in putting the Palestinians more firmly under Arafat's control, it strengthens the Israeli position, as it simplifies the hydra-like nature of Palestinian leadership.

But Arafat himself is uncertain about Israeli intentions, fearing that Sharon has grown too unpredictable. The Associated Press reports that he is hunkered down in the belief that he might be the next missile target. He might also be the target of Hamas if they suspect that he cut a deal with Israel to leave the field clear.

Arafat aides say he was unnerved by Yassin's death and that he's staying holed up in his West Bank headquarters. One aide says, "He is like a man who was hit on the head because they killed Yassin and now they could kill him."

The world is now watching a very carefully engineered train wreck. Hamas is headed full speed for Israel, or will as soon as it can solve its leadership problems, and Sharon is commencing further operations against leadership targets in Gaza. Sharon has initiated a high stakes Game of Chicken, locked the steering wheel in place and thrown away the key. The only way out now is to accept the consequences of collision or to shift the roadbed.