An extensive discussion has already taken place in Israel regarding the cost-benefit ratio of Yassin’s assassination. But the question of justice has hardly been raised.
According to international law, the execution of any person in an occupied territory is not allowed. The Geneva Convention, born out of the horrifying experience of the second World War, sets limitations on the use of force even in times of war. The convention distinguishes between war and a state of occupation. Its fundamentals are, first, that occupied people are “protected”, and that the occupier is responsible for their safety. Second, it determines that the occupied people have the right to fight for their liberation. International conventions are one of the means people have developed for self-preservation. Without them, there is a danger that the human race would annihilate itself - first the strong would wipe out the weak, and then each other.
During its 37 years of occupation, Israel has already violated every article of the Geneva Convention. But what it did now is unprecedented. As Robert Fisk stated it in the British Independent, “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.” Even when the leader advocates violence and terror, the norm has been that he may be imprisoned, but not killed.
Ahmed Yassin viewed himself as struggling against the occupation. As reported in Yediot Aharonot, his demand was a full withdrawal of the Israeli army from the occupied territories, back to the borders of 1967. In 1993, Hamas agreed to the principles of the Oslo accords, but did not believe that Rabin would translate these principles into action, and urged the Palestinian people to remember that the occupation was not yet over. During the iron-fist period of Barak and Sharon, Yassin proposed a long term ‘hudna’ (cease fire), but he also believed that Israel would never end the occupation of its own will. “The enemy understands only the language of war, bombs and explosives” - he preached to his followers, and declared that “every Israeli is a target for us”.
The Geneva Convention recognizes the right of the occupied people to carry out armed struggle against the occupying army, but not to use terror against civilians. Terror has no moral justification, and is not defended by international law. But it is necessary that we Israelis examine ourselves in this regard as well. What other way do we leave open for the Palestinian people to struggle for their liberation? Along the route of the wall in the West Bank, a new form of popular resistance has been formed in the last few months. Palestinian farmers whose land is being robbed sit on the ground in front of the bulldozers, accompanied by the Israeli opponents of the wall - the veterans of the Mas’ha camp. What could be more nonviolent than this? But the Israeli army shoots at sitting demonstrators, like in Tiennamen Square.
The Israeli army blocks all options of non-violent resistance from the Palestinians. With the arrogant elimination of a leader and a symbol, as he was leaving a mosque, the army knowingly created a new wave of violence and terror. It is hard not to get the impression that terror is convenient for Sharon and the army. It enables them to convince the world that the Geneva protections do not apply to the Palestiians, because they have terrorists in their midst, and that, therefore, it is permitted to do anything to them.
Since September 11th, as part of its ‘war against terror’, the U.S. has been pushing to destroy all defences provided by International law. But even the U.S. has not yet dared to publicly execute a spiritual-religious leader (of, for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan). Now Israel has determined, with the U.S. blessing, that even this is permitted. Under the military rule, Israel has become a leading force in the destruction of the very protections that humankind has established, out of World War Two, for its own preservation, protections that we too may need one day, as history has already shown us.
Prof. Tanya Reinhart is a lecturer in linguistics, media and cultural studies at the Tel Aviv University. She is the author of several books, including Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948. This article first appeared in Yediot Aharonot on 30 March 2004. Translated from Hebrew by Netta Van Vliet.