The U.S. veto of a proposed UN Security Council
resolution criticizing Israel's March 22 assassination of Hamas founder
Sheik Ahmed Yassin has once again placed the United States both on the fringe
of international public opinion and in opposition to international legal norms.
Despite the proposed resolution condemning "all attacks against civilians,"
the United States once again was the lone dissenting vote, marking the 28th
time since 1970 that the U.S. has blocked a Security Council resolution criticizing
the actions of its most important Middle Eastern ally.
This is more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council have
used their veto power on all other issues during that period combined.
The Fourth Geneva Conventions – to which both Israel and the United States
are signatories, and which the UN Security Council, in previous unanimous resolutions,
has determined applies to the Israeli-occupied territories – explicitly
prohibits "the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced
by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which
are recognized as indispensable by civilized people." [Article 3(I)]
Furthermore, even if Ahmed Yassin was complicit in earlier acts of terrorism,
the elderly, quadriplegic sheik would still be considered a "protected
person," which the 1949 treaty describes as those "taking no active
part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces ... placed hors
de combat [out of combat] by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause."
Sheik Yassin and Terrorism
Sheik Yassin had been imprisoned twice in recent
years by Israeli occupation forces, but Israel set him free without any charges
of involvement with acts of terrorism. Though the Israeli military launched
frequent raids in the Gaza Strip and other Palestinian areas to arrest suspects,
they made no attempt to re-arrest Yassin. Similarly, the Israelis made no formal
extradition request to the Palestine Authority.
Yassin was a spiritual leader, not a military leader. Despite his reactionary
interpretation of Islamic teachings and his rationalizations for attacks against
Israeli civilians, he was not generally considered to be in the chain of command
regarding Hamas terrorist operations. Indeed, his failing health alone –
at the time of his assassination, he was largely blind and deaf – limited
his effectiveness as anything more than a symbolic figure.
In any case, Hamas was never a cult of personality centered around one person.
Its multifaceted operations – which, in addition to its military wing,
include a network of schools, health care clinics, and other basic social services
– operated well during periods in which Yassin was jailed.
In more recent, years Sheik Yassin had been considered a relatively moderate
voice, supporting a series of ceasefires with Israel (each of which Israel broke
by assassinating Palestinian leaders). He had also insisted that military operations
take place only within the boundaries of historic Palestine and not in the United
States. He recently stated that Hamas would stop attacks against Israel from
the Gaza Strip in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the territory. His successor,
Abdel Aziz Rantisi, disagreed with Sheik Yassin on each of these matters, and
will likely expand the deadly reach of Hamas' military wing.
The attack – consisting of three missiles fired from a U.S.-supplied helicopter
– also killed seven other people: two bodyguards and five unarmed bystanders.
The Israeli government has not even claimed these other victims were guilty
of any crimes.
In light of such moral, legal, and tactical questions regarding the assassination,
the Bush administration's response is particularly disturbing.
The Bush Administration's Response to the Assassination
While not overtly endorsing the attack, President
Bush declared on March 23 that " Israel has a right to defend herself from
terror." A day earlier, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice defended
the assassination by saying "Let's remember that Hamas is a terrorist
organization, and Sheik Yassin has himself, we believe, been involved in terrorist
planning." (She gave no evidence to back up her claims of Yassin's
personal involvement in planning terrorist operations.)
The strongest language against the attack the Bush administration could use
was uttered by spokesman Scott McLellan on the day of the attack, when he said
that "the United States is deeply troubled by this morning's action
in Gaza." Democrats in the House of Representatives, however, attacked
the Bush administration from the right, with Rep. Gary Ackerman (NY) –
joined by Robert Matsui (CA), Barney Frank (MA), Nita Lowey (NY), Shelley Berkley
(NV), Brad Sherman (CA), Carolyn McCarthy (NY), Ed Markey (MA), Martin Frost
(TX), and other Democratic leaders – demanding that President Bush "immediately
repudiate" McLellan's statement.
In any event, the Bush administration response to Israel's assassinations
policy was a lot milder than it had been previously. Last summer, for example,
following Israel's unsuccessful assassination attempt against Rantisi,
which killed a female bystander and wounded dozens of others, President Bush
declared, "I regret the loss of innocent life. I'm concerned that the attacks
will make it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to fight off terrorist
attacks. I also don't believe the attacks help the Israeli security."
The Democratic response to this moderate response from the administration,
however, was even more vociferous. The entire House Democratic leadership –
Minority leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), Deputy leader Steny Hoyer (MD), Caucus Chair
Robert Menendez (NJ), ranking House International Relations Committee ranking
member Tom Lantos (CA), and dozens of others – wrote a letter to President
Bush saying that they were "deeply dismayed" by his comments. The
Democrats claimed that " the attack on Hamas leader Abdel Rantisi was clearly
justified as an application of Israel 's right to self-defense," and
that Israel 's assassination policy must have "the full support of
the United States."
It is noteworthy that the majority of the Democratic leaders signing these
letters are on record opposing the death penalty, even in cases where a mass
murderer like Timothy McVeigh has been granted a fair trial by jury and other
Constitutional guarantees. McVeigh, however, is a white American. By contrast,
if the suspect is a Palestinian, these Democrats appear to believe that not
only is execution an appropriate punishment, no due process is required. This
is yet another example of the vicious and endemic anti-Arab racism in the Democratic
The Assassination Debate within Israel
It would be wrong to attribute the Republicans'
and Democrats' support of Israel 's assassinations as support for
Israel . Indeed, Israelis themselves are deeply divided on the wisdom of such
provocative actions. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's own interior
minister, Avraham Poraz, declared, "I think the damage is greater than
the usefulness." Even more significantly, Shin Bet, the Israeli security
service charged with protecting Israelis from terrorist attacks, was also in
opposition to the Yassin assassination, according to Israeli press reports.
Danny Rubenstein, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, observed,
"The more Israel hits Hamas leaders and rank-and-file members, the more
their popularity climbs. In tandem, they become increasingly immune to operations
by the PA's security force, since any such operation would only be interpreted
as treacherous collaboration with Israel."
Prominent Israeli journalist Uri Avneri reacted by observing, "There seems
to be no limit to the stupidity of our political and military leaders. They
endanger the future of the State of Israel." Indeed, public opinion polls
show that 80% of the Israeli public fear more violence, since virtually every
Israeli assassination has resulted directly in terrorist attacks against civilian
targets in Israel. Indeed, political scientist Steve Niva of Evergreen State
College has demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks
by Hamas have come in direct response to such Israeli assassinations and assassination
Similarly, Yediot Ahoronot's military affairs correspondent Alex
Fishman has observed that such assassinations appear to be designed to inflame
militant groups rather than deter them, noting the pattern of Israeli attacks
when there has been a lull in Palestinian violence and when Hamas had agreed
to or was considering a cease-fire.
Furthermore, the killings have dramatically raised the standing of Hamas relative
to the more moderate secular groupings that make up the Palestine Authority
(PA). Despite PA president Yasir Arafat's corruption, ineptitude, and autocratic
rule, the PA has accepted the principle of peace, security guarantees, and normalized
relations with Israel in return for the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces
from the 22% of historic Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967. By contrast,
Hamas wants no less than 100% of historic Palestine.
A Revival of Nonviolent Resistance
Over the past two months, there has been a revival
of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, with Palestinians (sometimes joined
by Israeli peace activists) engaging in sit-ins, blockades, and other forms
of nonviolent direct action against the Israeli occupation and colonization
of the West Bank. A number of Israeli analysts, including political science
professor Neve Gordan of Ben-Gurion University, believe that the assassination
of Sheik Yassin will short-circuit this nonviolent movement and turn the tide
back in a more violent direction.
It is noteworthy that, during the first and largely nonviolent intifada in
the late 1980s, the Israelis closed down the Palestinian Center for the Study
of Nonviolence (PCSNV) while allowing Hamas to operate openly. Israeli occupation
authorities arrested and exiled PCSNV's founding director Mubarak Awad,
a Palestinian native of Jerusalem and a disciple of Gandhi, while allowing Sheik
Yassin to remain free and to openly call for armed struggle against Israel.
The major reason for the bipartisan American backing for Israel's policy
of assassination, then, is not out of concern for Israeli security interests,
which are clearly compromised by such policies. The main reason is that Israeli
policy is not very different from current U.S. policy.
In September 2001, President Bush rescinded President Gerald Ford's 1976
executive order banning agents of the U.S. government from engaging in assassinations
and lowered the standard of proof for assassinations to those merely "suspected"
of being terrorists.
For example, in November 2002, President Bush ordered the assassination of
a suspected al Qaeda operative in Yemen. Not only has the administration not
released evidence of why it believed the victim was an al Qaeda leader, but
the missile attack on his car killed four other people, including a U.S. citizen.
In effect, the Democratic Party is now to the right of Ford administration,
and – as indicative in these recent "Dear Colleague" letters
– to the right of the Bush administration as well. By opposing international
legal standards even more vociferously than President Bush, it will make it
very difficult for voters who support these principles to vote for either major
party this fall.
The sad fact, then, is that even a Democratic victory in November is unlikely
to bring much change from the Bush administration's ongoing assaults against
international law and the United Nations. As a result, it is all the more imperative
that those who support such principles not waste their time trying to elect
Democrats who support nearly identical foreign policies as their Republican
opponents, but demand that both parties end their opposition to basic international
legal principles and institutions which are upheld by virtually every other