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INSIGHT

Reaction to Killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

Aired March 22, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: Beheading Hamas. Israeli missiles kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of the Islamic resistance movement. What will his followers do now?
Hello and welcome.

Appearances are deceiving. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a frail man with a gentle face, paralyzed and nearly deaf. To many Palestinians he was revered for the charitable works he organized and his reputation for honest. But his organization, Hamas, is of course dedicated to the destruction of an entire country and infamous for its suicide attacks.

Having arrested, convicted and then released Sheikh Yassin years ago, Israel decided to kill him Monday. Israeli helicopters fired three missiles as he was being pushed in his wheelchair for morning prayers.

The angry demonstrations that followed on the streets of Gaza and the West Bank were larger than any seen in years.

On our program today, the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

We begin with this report from CNN's Paula Hancocks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Israel says the Middle East is a safer place after the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

Palestinian militants say it has opened the gates to hell.

A quadriplegic, physically weak but mentally strong and dangerous, according to Israeli officials, claiming the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas is the mastermind behind countless bloody attacks on Israeli civilians. Public enemy No. 1.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): He is the Palestinian bin Laden. His hands are soaked with the blood of the children of Israel.

HANCOCKS: Anger mixed with grief in the streets of Gaza City Monday as tens of thousands of Palestinians followed the funeral procession to Yassin's final resting place, a cemetery known as Martyr's Cemetery.

Seven others also killed in the Israeli helicopter attack. International condemnation followed swiftly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is unacceptable, it is unjustified, and it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The situation is really serious and grave. I have that there will be control on the ground. That is not good news. It's bad news and I hope that the situation will return to normalcy soon. But there are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and there still is a lot of work to be done there.

HANCOCKS: The United States, however, did not condemn the attack, saying Israel has a right to defend itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will point out that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Sheikh Yassin was personally involved in terrorism. It is important, as we have emphasized time and time again, for the Palestinian Authority to take action to dismantle terrorist organizations.

HANCOCKS: Israel describes Yassin as the godfather of all suicide bombers, saying he was responsible for planning and directing many of the suicide attacks, which have overall killed 462 Israelis and injured another 3,000 according to Human Rights Watch.

Fear of retaliatory attacks but no tears for Yassin on the streets of Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's good news, great news. I hope he rots in hell.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ahmed Yassin killed many Israeli innocent. Children, women, families, and he belongs now where he should be.

HANCOCKS: But the assassination of Sheikh Yassin runs the risk of transforming him in the eyes of moderate Palestinians from the founder of a militant group to a symbol of the Palestinian fight against Israeli occupation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All Palestinians feel that this is an assault on their cause, on their identity. Ahmed Yassin is no longer representing one faction of one religion. He represents the Palestinian cause.

HANCOCKS: Strong threats of revenge from Hamas. A Hamas leaflet distributed in Gaza City claiming, "Whoever decided to kill Yassin decided to kill hundreds of the Zionists."

Pockets of violence broke out in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. The Palestinian Authority accusing the Israeli government of opening the door to chaos, killing the man many see as the only man capable of controlling Hamas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you cut the head, Hamas might be like a Medusa, a multi-headed system of organizations which are competing with each other, which is going to use more spectacular violence against the Israelis.

HANCOCKS: Fears echoed in the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Israeli government and Mr. Sharon are crazy and they don't know what they're doing. They are opening the door of hell now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Although it's a message for Hamas and the Palestinian people, it's also a message for Yasser Arafat. It's a threat against him.

HANCOCKS: Sheikh Yassin was well-aware of the threat against him. Talking to CNN last year, he acknowledged both the impact and consequences of his actions.

SHEIKH AHMED YASSIN, FMR. HAMAS LEADER (through translator): We are a jihad and martyr movement and we are not ready to give up our rights in front of the United States or others. We are ready to die, and those we are ready to die, nobody can defeat them.

HANCOCKS: Paula Hancocks, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We get the very latest now from CNN's Ben Wedeman in Gaza City.

Ben, I gather the violence, the outbursts, are over. But now there is an Israeli incursion into Gaza. Can you tell us about that?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jonathan, it's relatively quiet right now, but a few hours ago we heard a series of explosions and some small arms fire. Our understanding is that several Israeli armored vehicles have entered into the northern part of the Gaza Strip.

Israeli military sources tell us, however, that it's a limited operation, basically to prevent more Kassem rockets from being fired into Israel. Earlier this evening, four of those rockets had been fired over the border. In this case, no casualties or damage -- Jonathan.

MANN: Let's go back then to Sheikh Yassin. It's not clear from a distance what it is that he represented to the Palestinian people and how other Palestinian or Arab leaders, for that matter, felt about him as a peer.

WEDEMAN: Well, it's an interesting question, because I've spoken to senior Egyptian officials who said they didn't particularly like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. They saw him as a dangerous man, akin ideologically to many of the kind of groups they've been fighting against for years.

But at the same time, at the level of the Arab street, among Palestinians and Arabs, whether in Egypt or Jordan or Syria, they saw him as a folk hero. He's a man with a huge following, not only here but outside of Gaza and the West Bank, who was seen as somebody who lived a very modest lifestyle. He lived basically in a slum in a very simple house.

But nonetheless, he was very powerful, and by and large many people in the Arab world see power as akin to corruption. And he was somebody who was a folk hero, sort of like a Robin Hood, who fought for the common man, whose ideology was based in Islam in its purest sense, its some would call fundamentalist sense.

And therefore, he did have a wide appeal. But that very same appeal was anti-establishment, and that's why among many Arab officials, he was seen as a dangerous man. And although we've heard statements coming out of every Arab capital condemning -- statements from governments condemning his killing, there are probably some in the Arab world who don't regret the fact that he has been removed from the scene -- Jonathan.

MANN: CNN's Ben Wedeman, in Gaza. Thanks very much.

We'll be hearing more along those lines in a moment. Right now we take a break, and then world reaction to the killing of Sheikh Yassin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cancelled plans for a few Egyptian legislators to mark the occasion at the Israeli parliament. When asked about the impact that Yassin's death would have on the peace process, Mubarak answered rhetorically, "What peace process when the situation is on fire."

Welcome back.

Israel wouldn't have expected support from the Arab world for its attack on Monday, and it didn't get any. Instead, it got outbursts of violence and the promise of more violence to come.

From other nations, there were condemnations, European Union countries and France. Britain and the United States took a more cautious route. Britain saying Israel has the right to defend itself, but within the boundaries of international law. The United States, for its part, urged calm and restraint.

Elise Labott has more now on the reaction from Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Israeli foreign minister came to Washington to discuss his country's plans to withdraw from Gaza, but in meetings at the White House and State Department he clearly had some explaining to do about Israel's killing of Sheikh Yassin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Israel deserves self-defense, and this action in Gaza was pure self-defense in order to protect our people.

LABOTT: Bush administration officials refuse to condemn Israel's action.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would point out that Hamas is a terrorist organization. Sheikh Yassin was personally involved in terrorism.

LABOTT: But U.S. officials are worried Yassin's killing will fuel tensions in the region and frustrate U.S. efforts to bring both Israelis and Palestinians together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The United States is deeply concerned about -- deeply troubled by this morning's actions. The event, in our view, increases tension and doesn't help our efforts to resume progress towards peace.

LABOTT: U.S. officials gathered in Cairo with Egyptian leaders and Quartet partners. They had hoped to advance Israel's plan to withdraw from Palestinian territories, but world outrage following Yassin's killing made progress towards peace nearly impossible.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECY.-GEN.: Such actions are not only contrary to international law, but they do not do anything to help the search for a peaceful solution.

LABOTT: The United States made clear it did not know about the attack beforehand, but the United States itself has undertaken targeted killings. In 2002, it launched a hellfire missile at a car in Yemen containing six suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We believe that al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas, all of them are motivated by the same ideology.

LABOTT: For the United States, a difficult balance between supporting Israel and its own war against terror and appearing as an evenhanded broker in the Middle East.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the only thing we can really do constructively is to say to Israel, "Listen, if you're going to do these sorts of very heavy-handed tactics, you also have to be much more sincere about peace."

LABOTT (on camera): Hamas has now directly threatened the United States, saying Washington's support of Israel made Yassin's killing possible. While criticizing Israel's actions and the potential consequences, U.S. officials point out Hamas remains a terrorist group and they will continue to go after its members and infrastructure as part of the U.S. war against terror.

Elise Labott, CNN, at the State Department.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: A closer look now at Hamas and Sheikh Yassin. For that, we turn to Yonah Alexander of the Potomac Institute. He is also author of "Palestinian Religious Terrorism: A Profile of Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all, Sheikh Yassin was frail, he was nearly deaf, he couldn't move around unaided. Was he really in any sense an operational figure of Palestinian terrorism, or was he more of an inspiration to others who actually carried out those heinous acts?

YONAH ALEXANDER, AUTHOR: Yes. I mean, if you look at the person, you wouldn't think that he would be responsible for some 450 attacks since September 2000 and about 52 suicide attacks killing hundreds of people and wounded some few thousand people in this process. But it's not just the person himself, but the image and the symbol and the indoctrination.

And unfortunately, from what we know, he was involved even in the organization of these attacks.

You mentioned, Jonathan, before, the 25th anniversary of the peace between Israel and Egypt, and this is really ironic that it's happening now. Any effort that was made in the peace process since the Oslo of '93, Hamas and Yassin tried to undermine it and to sabotage it by terrorist attacks.

MANN: Well, a man like that, you might say, should be behind bars, and in fact he was. He was in jail and, correct me if I'm wrong, Israel released him. Why was he released? Was that a mistake? And couldn't Israel have put him back behind bars again?

ALEXANDER: Well, Israel had to release him because of a failed intelligence assassination operation in Jordan. And, you know, it was a question of the Israel cabinet, what to do about him, in the same way they have to decide what to do about Arafat, who is also involved in various terrorist activity.

So the real straw that broke the back of the camel seems to me to have been when (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Port, the two suicide bombers, they tried to mount what is known as a mega-attack, a super spectacular attack, the 9/11 of Israel, and it failed. Then they realized that they really have to deal with the core or the fundamental direction that comes from Yassin and some of his associates.

MANN: I heard your tongue slip. You were about to say Yasser Arafat, which leads me to a question. If acts of terrorism can be blamed on Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and he can be killed by Israel as a result, how worried should Yasser Arafat be? Because, as you well know, the Sharon government blames him for acts of terrorism committed by people who are loyal to his leadership.

ALEXANDER: That's the issue. I mean, it's still being debated, what to do with someone like Yasser Arafat, whether to arrest him or expel him or kill him.

But, you know, you have to keep in mind that even with Yassin gone, his legacy and his vision is going to remain for many years to come, because it is the question of education and hatred. We have to keep in mind that the next generation of suicide bombers are going to be inspired by this particular vision.

So in the short-term, perhaps it will disrupt it again. The level (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the Hamas. But in the long-term, I think we will have to keep in mind that education, to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) some of the negative theological elements from political conflict is a major requirement.

MANN: Can I bring you back to the short-term? Israel may have inspired terrible retribution by the followers of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. That seems to have been the case in the past.

ALEXANDER: There is no question that this operation would trigger more bloodshed. But, look, the terrorists, if you look at their mindset, they don't need any (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or justification. If they decide that they are going to mount operations, they are going to do it, regardless, whether they have another justification or another cause.

So the fact remains that since the beginning of this intifada, there were dozens and dozens of suicide attacks and other attacks, and also the calling by some of the leadership, including Yassin, to kidnap Israelis and use some of the Kassem rockets and so forth against Israeli settlements.

So one has to see it from the perspective, A, of the Israeli government, to protect its citizens at home and abroad, and secondly, obviously, to see it from the perspective of the Palestinians and those who support Yassin. And I have no doubt in my mind that terrorism is going to be intensified, not only in the region, but elsewhere, those who sympathize and support Yassin and Hamas. Because we are really dealing with an international network, as you know, Jonathan. It's not only Hamas on the local level, but their linkage with other groups in the region and beyond the region.

MANN: On that ominous note, Yonah Alexander, of the Potomac Institute, thanks so much for this.

ALEXANDER: Thank you.

MANN: We have to take a break now. When we come back, diplomacy. What can be done to salvage the peace process.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Israel almost killed Sheikh Yassin at least once before. Last year, an Israeli bomb blew apart a building where he and his lieutenants had been meeting, but he left moments before hand and was only slightly wounded.

Welcome back.

It was no secret to Israelis, Palestinians or Americans that Israel might try again. U.S. officials have said over and over that they had no advanced word of the attack Monday and did not approve of it. They've also resisted any opportunity to condemn it.

Where does the U.S.-backed Middle East peace process go now? Joining us a short-time ago to talk about that was Aaron David Miller, President of Seeds of Peace, an organization that encourages children to break the cycle of violence. He also served in the U.S. State Department, most recently as an adviser for Arab-Israel negotiations.

He says the current administration has disengaged from the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and hopes to stay on the sidelines, even after Mondays' attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AARON DAVID MILLER, SEEDS OF PEACE: The reaction, as you rightly characterize it, is ambivalent. On one hand, the administration has made clear, almost from its inception, that it's against a policy of targeted assassinations, and they're obviously urging restraint because, you know, deep within the administration, I'm almost certain that there is a great deal of concern that what the Israelis have done has the potential to upset or take the volatile situation as it is now to a new level.

At the same time, their not going to condemn this operation, because as a fellow democracy faced with the issue of suicide terror, the administration has to make its own calls and does in terms of prosecuting its own war against terror.

So the reaction is going to be ambivalent.

As far as can it sit on the sidelines, yes it can. I suspect it will be forced to take additional actions to some degree here, but the reality, I think is very clear. And I'm not saying the situation is easy. Pursuing Arab-Israeli peace is in American national interests, and this administration is very well positioned, should it decide to make that decision, to engage in a serious and sustained way, to do that.

It has a roadmap that is backed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis and much of the international community. This president is forceful and willful and has introduced into the diplomatic lexicon the idea of a two-state solution. And I think basically there's a real opportunity for the administration to engage.

So the answer is, they are on the sidelines right now, but a compelling case could be made that they shouldn't be.

MANN: Well, a lot of Arab leaders are saying that this is a terrible setback for the peace process, so how does it get advanced? What does the United States do?

MILLER: Well, look, let's distinguish between two things. The idea that somehow after the last three years Israelis and Palestinians are going to find a way quickly and easily to get back into a negotiation, to negotiate all of the issues that were joined at Camp David, is probably not going to happen. But could the administration define a policy that would allow it to bring to an end this organized confrontation that now exists between Israelis and Palestinians? Could through diplomacy, marshalling the Arab states, working closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians, Abu Ala on one hand and the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, on the other? Could the administration engage in a way that would, from the security, economic and political perspective create a new reality on the ground?

Yes, it could. It requires a commitment from the president. It requires the appointment probably of a special envoy, if not the secretary of state or the national security adviser, and it requires a plan of action. It requires essentially to take the roadmap and to translate it into an operational blueprint that would allow each side to take a series of steps unilaterally and reciprocally that would begin to get at some of the security and economic issues that define the current dismal situation on the ground.

MANN: Why isn't that happening?

MILLER: That's a very good question.

I think it's not happening in large part because I think the United States has become conditioned to accept a certain sense of futility about the current situation between Israelis and Palestinians.

After three years of non-stop trauma and violence in which every single day Palestinians and Israelis are either trying to kill one another or being successful at it, you grow inured to the situation and you begin to accept a certain degree of inevitability.

The problem is that American interests and the interests of our Israeli friends and our Arab friends and our Palestinian friends and our European friends are not served by this kind of dismal situation and, frankly, when two parties don't trust one another, it is the responsibility, and I would argue the obligation of the third part, particularly one that has demonstrated over time that it can have an impact. I mean, it would be one thing if we had no track record, but the United States has been involved in either diffusing or helping create every single diplomatic opportunity in the Arab-Israeli arena, from Sadat's trip to Jerusalem with Jimmy Carter, through the disengagement agreements of an earlier era with Henry Kissinger, through Jim Bakers diplomacy at Madrid, through the efforts of the Clinton administration in Oslo, the Israeli- Jordanian peace treaty.

So we have a track record and we have a demonstrated set of skills and experience to make a bad situation better.

Now it's an election year, and all governments have electoral politics, so I'm sure that to some degree has influenced the thinking, but the fact is, with enough determination and enough will, the administration could make a difference.

MANN: Aaron David Miller of Seeds of Peace. Thank you so much for this.

MILLER: Thank you, Jonathan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: And that's INSIGHT. The news continues.

END

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