The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2004

THE FEAR FACTOR

By Bret Stephens

Are Palestinians weeds? It would seem many people think they are. Following Israel's assassination early yesterday morning of Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, the gist of international reaction was that the strike would bring new converts to the Islamist cause and incite a fresh wave of terrorist violence against Israel. In other words, Palestinians are weeds: Mowing them down, as it were, only has the effect of making them grow back stronger and faster.

There are moments (Monday morning was one of them) when I find myself tempted by the metaphor. As I write, my TV screen is filled with images of Palestinian mourners thronging the streets of Gaza, praising Yassin as a martyr and vowing deadly vengeance. This looks like the reaction of an emboldened people, not a frightened one. So what's the sense, in purely utilitarian terms, of further Israeli attacks? Alternatively, what's the sense of showing any restraint at all? If the weed metaphor is right, either Israel should sue for peace on whatever terms the Palestinians extend or it should resort to extreme measures like population transfer. Anything else just fruitlessly prolongs a cycle of violence.

But of course Palestinians aren't weeds. They're human. They think in terms of costs and benefits, they calculate the odds, they respond more or less rationally to incentives and disincentives. And what makes us afraid can also make them afraid.

This is a trite observation, but it's one Palestinians would rather have us forget. Over 42 months of conflict, their strategy has been to persuade Israelis that they, the Palestinians, are made of different stuff. Why else the suicide bombers? Not because of their proven capacity to kill civilians in greater numbers than any other weapon currently in the Palestinian arsenal. That's only a second-order effect. The deep logic of suicide bombing lies in the act of suicide itself. People who will readily die for their cause are, by definition, beyond deterrence. By showing that Israel's tanks and fighter jets are just so much scrap metal in the face of the Palestinians' superhuman determination, they aim to disarm Israel itself.

How does one respond to such a logic? It helps not to be fooled by it. Again, allow me to make the trite observation that Palestinians love their children too. To date, there has not been a single instance in which a Hamas leader sent one of his own sons or daughters on a suicide mission. I once interviewed a Hamas leader, since deceased, as he bounced his one-year-old girl on his knee. Contrary to myth, this was not a man who was afraid of nothing. Unsparing as he was with the lives of others, he was circumspect when it came to the lives of his own.

Indeed, when one looks closely at just who the suicide bombers are (or were), often they turn out to be society's outcasts. Take Reem Salah al-Rahashi, a mother of two, who in January murdered four Israeli soldiers at the Erez checkpoint on the Gaza-Israel border. In a prerecorded video, Rahashi said becoming a shaheed was her lifelong dream. Later it emerged she'd been caught in an extramarital affair, and that her husband and lover had arranged her "martyrdom operation" as an honorable way to settle the matter. It is with such people, not with themselves, that Palestinian leaders attempt to demonstrate their own fearlessness.

In the early months of the intifada, this macho pretense was sustained by the Israeli government's tacit decision not to target terrorist ringleaders, for fear such attacks would inspire massive retaliation. Yassin and his closest associates considered themselves immune from Israeli reprisals and operated in the open. What followed was the bloodiest terrorist onslaught in Israeli history, climaxing in a massacre at Netanya in March 2002. After that, Israel invaded the West Bank and began to target terrorist leaders more aggressively.

The results, in terms of lives saved, were dramatic. In 2003, the number of Israeli terrorist fatalities declined by more than 50% from the previous year, to 213 from 451. The overall number of attacks also declined, to 3,823 in 2003 from 5,301 in 2002, a drop of 30%. In the spring of 2003, Israel stepped up its campaign of targeted assassinations, including a failed attempt on Yassin's deputy, Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Wise heads said Israel had done nothing except incite the Palestinians to greater violence. Instead, Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups agreed unilaterally to a cease-fire.

In this context, it bears notice that between 2002 and 2003 the number of Palestinian fatalities also declined significantly, from 1,000 to about 700. The reason here is obvious: As the leaders of Palestinian terror groups were picked off and their operations were disrupted, they were unable to carry out the kind of frequent, large-scale attacks that had provoked Israel's large-scale reprisals. Terrorism is a top-down business, not vice versa. Targeted assassinations not only got rid of the most guilty but diminished the risk of open combat between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian foot soldiers.

Now a few words about Yassin, the international reaction to his killing, and the likely result for Israel. It may be recalled that Israel released the good sheikh in 1997, after having sentenced him to life in prison, with the promise that he would never again promote terrorism. This was during the Oslo years, when serious people actually thought that such conciliatory gestures served the interests of peace. Today, that is beyond comprehension. At any rate, Yassin didn't keep his promise.

Meanwhile, assorted foreign ministers are in full throat against Israel. "All of us understand Israel's need to protect itself -- and it is fully entitled to do that -- against the terrorism that affects it, within international law," says British Foreign Minister Jack Straw. "But it is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing."

It would be interesting to know exactly what, according to Mr. Straw, Israel is lawfully allowed to do in self-defense. Perhaps it would be as well if the minister also reminded the Palestinian Authority of its obligations, under the Road Map, to "undertake visible efforts
. . . to arrest, disrupt, and restrain individuals and groups conducting and planning attacks on Israelis." But if Mr. Straw and his colleagues do not do so, it is not from an excess of respect for the Palestinians, but rather its lack. They will, after all, be viewing them merely as weeds, not as humans capable of acting in their own best interests.

Mr. Stephens is editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post.