23 March 2004
It doesn't take an awful lot of courage to murder a paraplegic in a wheelchair. But it takes only a few moments to absorb the implications of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin. Yes, he endorsed suicide bombings - including the murder of Israeli children. Yes, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword, in a wheelchair or not. But something went wrong with the narrative of the news story yesterday - and something infinitely more dangerous, another sinister precedent - was set for our brave new world.
Take the old man himself. From the start, the Israeli line was simple. Sheikh Yassin was the "head of the snake" - to use the words of the Israeli ambassador to London - the head of Hamas, "one of the world's most dangerous terrorist organisations". But then came obfuscation from the world's media. Yassin, the BBC World Service Television told us at lunchtime, was originally freed by the Israelis in a "prisoner exchange". It sounded like one of those familiar swaps - a Palestinian released in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers. And then, later in the day, the BBC told us that he had been freed "following a deal brokered by King Hussain [of Jordan]". Which was all very strange. He was a prisoner of the Israelis. This "head of the snake" was in an Israeli prison. And then, bingo, this supposed monster was let go because of a "deal".
Sheikh Yassin was set free by no less than that law-and-order right-wing Likudist Benjamin Netanyahu when he was Prime Minister of Israel. King Hussain wasn't a "broker" between two sides. Two Israeli Mossad secret agents had tried to murder a Hamas official in Amman, the capital of an Arab nation which had a full peace agreement with Israel. They had injected the Hamas man with poison and the late King Hussain called the US President in fury and threatened to put the captured Mossad men on trial if he wasn't given the antidote to the poison and if Yassin wasn't released.
Netanyahu immediately gave in. Yassin was freed and the Mossad lads went safely home to Israel. So the "head of the snake" was let loose by Israel itself, courtesy of the Israeli Prime Minister - a chapter in the narrative of history which was conveniently forgotten yesterday. Which is all very odd. For if the elderly cleric really was worthy of state murder, why did Mr Netanyahu let him go in the first place? It was not a question that anyone wanted to ask yesterday.
But there was something infinitely more dangerous in all this. Yet another Arab - another leader, however vengeful and ruthless - had been assassinated. The Americans want to kill Osama Bin Laden. They want to kill Mullah Omar. They killed Saddam's two sons. The Israelis repeatedly threaten to murder Yasser Arafat. It's getting to be a habit.
No one has begun to work out the implications of all this. For years, there has been an unwritten rule in the cruel war of government-versus-guerrilla. You can kill the men on the street, the bomb makers and gunmen. But the leadership on both sides - government ministers, spiritual leaders - were allowed to survive.
Now all is changed utterly. Anyone who advocates violence is now on a death list. So who can be surprised if the rules are broken by the other side?
With all their own security, Bush and Blair may be safe, but what about their ambassadors and fellow ministers? Leaders are fair game. We will not say this. If, or when, our own political leaders are gunned down or blown up, we shall vilify the killers and argue a new stage in "terrorism" has been reached. We shall forget that we are now encouraging this all-out assassination spree.