By creating a shaheed (martyr) through the assassination of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Yassin, Israel may have signaled a war not only against all Palestinians, but against all Islam. This is the essence of the “clash of civilizations” as dreamed by American neo-conservatives and endorsed by the Likud Party in Israel.

Sharon’s ‘final solution’

Beirut in 1982 is the blueprint for the current strategy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Gaza and the West Bank. The objectives are straightforward: to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA); to prevent the emergence of any credible, secular Palestinian leadership; to perpetuate chaos in the West Bank; and then to apply “transfer,” expelling the indigenous Palestinian population to Jordan or, better yet, to an Iraq under American watch. Since 2001, everything in Palestine has been subjected to a hellish cycle of violence: a Sharon provocation is followed by a string of suicide bombings, which is followed by revenge attacks. The second intifada, the destruction of Yasser Arafat’s government infrastructure, the massacre at the Jenin refugee camp, Arafat’s house arrest – all these developments are hostage to the same cycle and serve the same logic: the destruction not only of Arafat and the secular, nationalist PA, but also of any hope of a Palestinian state. The assassination of Yassin is designed to increase the pressure.

In the eyes of Israel and the United States, Yassin is a terrorist. For the Arab and Muslim world, he is a resistance fighter and a spiritual leader. Early this year, Yassin told the German media that Hamas was ready to accept a “temporary peace if a Palestinian state is created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” Hamas up to then had wanted a Muslim state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River and denied the right of Israel to exist. Yassin said Hamas was prepared to stop its operations if Israel ended the occupation and stopped killing innocent Palestinians.

On the road to Sharon’s “final solution,” the assassination of Yasser Arafat was supposed to be the final provocation – as Sharon himself announced it last year. But Palestinian sources tell Asia Times Online that at the first signs of Hamas steering toward negotiations, Sharon chose to target Yassin instead. Sharon knows very well that a Hamas movement consumed with anger and vowing revenge through suicide bombings could not be a better enemy to be fought in all-out war; certainly much more convenient than a moderate, secular Palestinian government, or Arafat himself. But now even these considerations are marginal. Everybody and his neigbor apparently is on Sharon’s hit list.

Anyway, the “elimination” of Arafat – which would have to be approved by Washington – remains the icing on the cake in Sharon’s “final solution”: after that, there will be no moderate, secular, pragmatic Palestinian leader, or organization for that matter, with the necessary political authority to speak or negotiate in the name of all Palestinians.

Islam’s response

The big question is how Hamas will rise to the challenge. The first reaction was predictable: Khaled Mashaal, Hamas political bureau chief, said that “Sharon has been targeted by Palestinian resistance men and al-Qassam Brigades, in retaliation for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.” Hamas also distributed its own deck of cards – American-style – with the names of targeted Israeli officials. But it’s crucial to point out that Hamas so far has not succumbed to the provocation of widening its targets to include the US. Mashaal said that the focus remains Israel until the end of the occupation.

Hamas may be originally an Islamic movement. But this is now also marginal, as far as the wider Palestinian resistance is concerned. Political and religious factions alike are now stressing solidarity.

The reaction in the wider Islamic world is much more complex. The Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, promptly reacted in the name of al-Qaeda, via a letter emailed to the Arab media. Abu Hafs al-Masri was an al-Qaeda leader killed in the 2001 American bombing in Afghanistan; the brigades are now a trademark signature of practically every al-Qaeda communique to its worldwide cells, as after the bombings in Madrid. The message reads: “We call on all the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades to avenge the sheikh of the Palestinian resistance by striking the tyrant of the age, America and its allies.” The message calls for “strikes against this Jewish-crusader snake.” Historically, al-Qaeda couldn’t care less about the Palestinian struggle, but the assassination of a Sunni spiritual leader like Yassin moves the battle up one notch: for al-Qaeda, now the jihad in Palestine must be totally integrated with the jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Top Islamic scholars and spiritual leaders stress the support of all Muslims for the Palestinian resistance, with the emphasis on unity. Yassin himself was betting on increasing political unity between different Palestinian factions and Lebanese and Iraqi groups. Sheikh Hamid al-Bitawi, the imam of al-Aqsa mosque and head of the Palestinian Scholars League, said: “We the Palestinians will not throw in the towel for the Zionists. We will not give up … we are the natives of this homeland.” The mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, stressed the importance of unity of the Arab world: “If the Arab rulers took a unified stance, the Israeli occupation would not dare to commit such crimes against the Palestinians.”

But some key spiritual leaders go one step further. For them, there’s only one answer: jihad – more or less what al-Qaeda is saying. In Cairo, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Mohammad Sayed Tantawi – one of Sunni Islam’s highest authorities – said: “This is a heinous crime that must not go without punishment.”

Sheikh Yousef al-Qardawi, who conducts his extremely popular talk show Sharia and Life on Qatar-based al-Jazeera television, said that “only force and jihad work with those aggressors.” He insisted that “all Palestinians should now unify ranks and heal rifts to avenge the killing of Yassin and his companions.” Al-Qardawi added that Yassin as a resistance leader was a powerful symbol not only for Palestinians, but to 1.3 billion Muslims all over the world. And right on cue, from Najaf in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shi’ite religious authority, called on “the sons of the Arab and Islamic nations to close ranks, unite and work hard for the liberation of the usurped land and restore rights.”

Yet the key question remains: how powerful will be moderate Islam’s answer to Sharon’s provocation? The assassination may be leading to something unforeseen in the Islamic world – and indeed very powerful: a convergence of all national liberation movements against occupation. This has nothing to do with violent, global jihad. Call it peaceful jihad – but a jihad none the less.

Silent Washington

From calls to unity to calls to jihad, the Islamic world is reading the assassination of Sheikh Yassin as the ultimate provocation to force Palestinian despair to the limit, creating appalling conditions that would allow Israel to break the will of Palestinian civil society. In this context, the silence of approval in Washington is being interpreted by the Islamic world as another nail in the coffin of American credibility and moral leadership in the “war on terror.” There could not be better propaganda for al-Qaeda, the International Islamic Front and the global jihad.

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