Death in a Wheelchair

Death in a Wheelchair

Death in a Wheelchair

What the foreign papers are saying.
March 22 2004 2:41 PM

Death in a Wheelchair

Plus, what's cooking on U.S.-financed Al-Hurra.

Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmad Yassin came too late for most Monday morning dailies, although several updated their Web sites throughout the day. The prevailing sense was that the last thing the killing would do is limit terrorism. Rather, as many papers indicated, it would merely encourage Hamas to perpetuate the present cycle of attack and counterattack.

The Jerusalem Post offered details of the killing: It noted that Yassin, who was a blind quadraplegic, was killed in a helicopter strike, along with eight other people, after leaving morning prayers at a Gaza mosque. It cited a Palestinian taxi driver saying: "His wheelchair was twisted. Two or three people were lying next to him on the ground. One was legless."

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The Israeli defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, called Yassin "the Osama Bin Laden of the Palestinian people," and the Israeli army released a statement in which it said he was "personally responsible for dozens of terrorist attacks and the deaths of Israelis, foreigners and security personnel." Still, there was no sign the sheik's death would do anything to quell the ambient violence.

On the contrary. London's Guardian highlighted the statement of a Hamas spokesman who told the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya that Israel had "opened the gates of hell. For us, everything is now permissible after this assassination." The potential fruitlessness of the killing was also on the mind of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, which argued that the only group that might benefit from Yassin's death is Hamas. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority would pay the heaviest price, because "Hamas is perceived as an organization whose leaders are free of corruption and ready to make sacrifices. In the eyes of the Palestinian street, Hamas' diplomatic tactics have proven themselves to be effective, while … Arafat's strategy has led to a dead end." Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not been averse to indirectly boosting Islamist groups to undermine Arafat: In late January, for example, he agreed to a prisoner swap with Lebanon's Hezbollah that led to the release of, among others, a large number of Palestinians. An implicit message in that exchange was that even Hezbollah could secure the release of Palestinians, but that the PA could not.

In an apparent confirmation that the Yassin killing may soon also claim Israeli lives, the Israeli daily Maariv published a story on the immediate aftermath of the attack. It reported that an Israeli Arab had tried to kill three civilians with an ax near a military facility and that in Gaza, "mortars, rockets and small arms were fired at Israeli settlements and at localities inside pre-1967 Israel, causing damage but no casualties." To prepare for the Palestinian backlash, the Israelis divided the Gaza Strip into three areas and imposed a full closure and curfew on the strip and on the occupied West Bank, where more violence was reported.

Leading Arab newspapers were slower to update their Web sites, though by the afternoon some had put up staff and wire stories on the incident. The London-based Al-Hayat recalled that Yassin had been arrested by Israel in 1989 for having founded Hamas but was released in 1997 thanks to King Hussein of Jordan. Yassin's release was secured in exchange for the king's returning to Israel two intelligence agents who were captured in Amman after having tried, unsuccessfully, to kill a Hamas official. One of the effects of King Hussein's action at the time was to weaken Arafat by enhancing the status of Yassin, his rival. It appears that dead or alive the late Hamas leader has the power to trouble Arafat.

Arab satellite television channels picked up the slack: All day Monday, stations such as Al-Arabiya, Al-Jazeera, and Hezbollah's Al-Manar ran live feed from Palestinian demonstrations in the lead-up to Yassin's funeral. In contrast, at midday, when many people in the Arab world were watching television to find out what was happening, the U.S.-government-financed Arabic-language satellite station Al-Hurra was showing a translated American cooking program. This hardly endeared the station (which is supposed to provide an alternative approach to regional news that is more friendly to the United States) to Arab viewers. Whatever the reason, Al-Hurra's not pursuing the story in real time will be interpreted by many Arabs as politically motivated. Yassin's death was Al-Hurra's first test, and the station failed spectacularly.