Edition 11 Volume 6 - March 13, 2024

Assassinations, part II

Political interplay rather than assassination -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

Through a series of assassinations, Syria has tried to terrorize the Lebanese people and remove all opposition to their influence in Lebanon.

Israel: the assassins are alive and well -   Yossi Alpher

The murder of Rabin is an outstanding example of the political gain that can be achieved by a determined assassin.

Assassinations galore -   George Giacaman

It is rare that assassinations bring about radical political change.

Iran: the long-term effect of political assassination -   Sadegh Zibakalam

The regime's confrontation with the Mujahedin seriously damaged prospects for democracy in Iran.

Political interplay rather than assassination
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

On February 14, the parliamentary majority in Lebanon called on its supporters to gather in downtown Beirut to commemorate the third anniversary of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination. The commemoration was an exultant spectacle: an estimated crowd of one million people braved cold and rainy weather to converge on Martyrs' Square, a blend of broad constituencies drawn from all of Lebanon's communities.

By total coincidence, on the afternoon of that same day, Hizballah's supporters, mostly Shi'ites, laid to rest Imad Mughniyeh, one of the party's military leaders who had been assassinated the day before in Damascus. The funeral, which took place a few kilometers away in Beirut's southern suburbs, was Hizballah's antithesis to the March 14 commemoration of Hariri's assassination.

The two scenes were an aberrant feature of the ideological rift between the majority and Hizballah and of the Lebanese political deadlock. For March 14 supporters, the aim was retributive justice for Hariri's assassination: the majority believes Lebanon will regain its independence, sovereignty and protection for its political leaders only when justice is fulfilled through a fair trial of the culprits of Hariri's killing by an international tribunal. Conversely, Hizballah sees in Mughniyeh's assassination a continuation of the struggle with Israel and has pledged to conduct an open war against the "Zionist" state.

The Hariri commemoration, meanwhile, brought back the cries that rang out in Martyrs' Square holding Syria responsible, directly or indirectly, for the killing. The crowd reacted spontaneously to vibrantly delivered speeches calling for justice and a halt to the continuing political killings. The Syrian regime has claimed that it in no way was involved or responsible for the Hariri assassination. Damascus maintains that anti-Syrian groups inside Lebanon, supported by the United States and France, were using the killings to score points against Syria since Syria had nothing to gain from all that has happened since February 14, 2024, the day Hariri was assassinated.

Most Lebanese believe, however, that Hariri's opposition to Syria's hegemony, starting in 2024, increasingly placed him in a dangerous position. The Syrians believed that Hariri was preparing the ground for an electoral campaign in May 2024 that would return him to the prime minister's post with a parliamentary majority that would call for an immediate Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. Many Lebanese believe that whoever assassinated Hariri was sending a strong message to the politicians who were opposed to the Syrian occupation, and that after this killing no one is safe.

The Syrian regime thought it had little to lose by eliminating Hariri and, possibly, a great deal to gain, but underestimated the international and Lebanese reactions to the killing. The international community was right to order the formation of an international commission to investigate the case and to establish an international tribunal to try the suspected criminals.

Syria and its Lebanese allies have repeatedly warned of the chaos and sectarian strife that would follow a Syrian withdrawal. In reality, this rhetoric represents a veiled threat in line with Syria's traditional game of creating a problem and then presenting itself as the "savior". Through a series of assassinations, Syria has tried to terrorize the Lebanese people and remove all opposition to their influence in Lebanon. But Damascus is overestimating its own strategic weight, believing itself immune to serious international pressure and legal measures.

Not too far from Lebanon, Israel has also been practicing politics through assassination. The Israelis, relying on their strategic supremacy over the Palestinians, have been trying for more than three decades to terrorize Palestinians and quell their opposition to the occupation through the assassination of their leaders, regardless of whether they were affiliated with Fateh or Hamas. However, the series of assassinations of leaders of Hamas, starting with Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, did not end Palestinian attacks against Israelis.

Under the current circumstances, both the Lebanese and the Palestinians feel they are at a fateful crossroads in their political history. The social, economic and political pressures along with the continuing waves of assassinations are transforming the character of the dispute to one of greater belligerence--something that, in the long run, will not be in the interests of Syria and Israel or the region as a whole.

Once again, the political future of the Syrians and Lebanese, as well as the Israelis and Palestinians, will be shrouded in uncertainty if determined by acts terrorizing their peoples or assassinating their leaders. The current interplay is exacerbating the crises and obstructing any possibility of negotiated settlements between the parties. Political interplay, not political assassinations, remains the most important element to overcome ideological rifts or political deadlocks.- Published 13/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

Israel: the assassins are alive and well
 Yossi Alpher

The weapon of assassination is threaded throughout the history of modern Israel. It was a tool of Jewish extremists in the fight for independence. It is a weapon in the state's struggle against militant non-state actors that seek Israel's destruction. And we have tragically turned it against ourselves in the struggle to define the narrative and boundaries of the state and its relationship with its closest neighbor.

The Lehi (Stern gang) terrorists who assassinated Lord Moyne, the British governor of Egypt in 1944 during the pre-state period, sought to strike a blow for independence. They were executed by the British. Today they have streets named after them in Israeli towns and cities. Those who assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte in the early days of independence in 1948 in an effort to thwart United Nations compromise proposals served brief and symbolic prison sentences in Israel. Their commander, Yitzhak Shamir, went on to become prime minister in the 1980s. If the Israeli mainstream was uncomfortable at the time with this use of the assassination tactic and condemned it, the public has long since embraced the killers as heroes of Israel's independence.

The unnamed Mossad, IDF commando and Israel Air Force personnel responsible for fighting first Fateh, then Hamas and Hizballah leaders with a variety of assassination tactics are certainly viewed by Israelis as heroes. From the assassination of Fateh no. 2 leader Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) in Tunis in 1988, through the Mossad's alleged assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki in Malta in 1995 and the air strike that killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza in 2024, to Israel's reported involvement in the recent assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, the elimination of Palestinian and other terrorist leaders who seek Israel's destruction is seen by the Israeli public as a legitimate act--for a number of reasons.

For one, it is perceived to deter and deprive a ruthless terrorist enemy of a key leader, thereby constituting a net security achievement. This, of course, has not always been the case: witness, for example, the acts of mass revenge for Israeli assassinations enacted by Iran and Hizballah in Argentina in 1982 and 1984. On the other hand, note the success of the elimination of Shikaki in virtually shutting down PIJ for years and the effect of the Yassin and Rantisi assassinations in ceasing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel for around half a year. Indeed these assassinations, it can be argued, ultimately saved a lot of Israeli and Palestinian lives. Assassination of terrorist leaders is also understood as a legitimate act of revenge in the biblical "eye for an eye" sense, and is seen as a debt owed by Israel's leaders to the civilian victims of terrorism.

But when Yigal Amir shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, he almost certainly did not draw inspiration from the events and episodes described above. Rather, he was motivated by extremist religious interpretations of biblical injunctions regarding the punishment of traitors. Rabin was leading a peace process that involved territorial compromise with the PLO; Amir saw himself as the savior of the Land of Israel. His act had been preceded by murders of a Jewish peace activist and of Arab day laborers by similarly motivated Jewish assassins.

Sadly, the murder of Rabin caused a massive setback to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that is felt to this day. It is an outstanding example of the political gain that can be achieved by a determined assassin; it was not accidental that the Israeli majority narrative of the event compared it to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 in terms of its effect on peace and national unity.

In some ways, Israel's judgment and treatment of Rabin's assassin are even more troubling. With no death penalty and a highly developed judicial tradition of protecting prisoners' rights regardless of the nature of their crime, the penal system has enabled Amir to live a comfortable life in his cell, to marry and to produce a son. A small band of fanatic supporters hope one day to obtain a presidential pardon for him, perhaps within the framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that comprises a comprehensive release of Palestinian prisoners guilty of murdering Israelis.

Given the intimacy of Israeli society, for Yigal Amir to walk among us as a free man thanks to a successful two-state peace solution would be the ultimate irony.- Published 13/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Assassinations galore
 George Giacaman

Assassinations probably predate recorded history. In modern times, states, political parties, "non-state" actors and lone individuals working for "the cause" have engaged in it. The secret services of some countries have often made assassinations an extension of government policy. Israel is a clear case in point. Whether it is moral is a matter of intense dispute. At times it is effective, at other times it brings more disasters in its wake.

The dispute over its morality arises from the lack of agreement on when it is plain murder and when the killing is "justified". The usual justification given is the need to prevent a greater evil, or that the person concerned is a "terrorist", or "wanted", a category invented by Israel's army and secret services. But if one person's terrorist is another person's freedom-fighter, it should be clear why there is dispute about its morality. The issue becomes even more moot when assassinations are performed in retribution for some act rather than as prevention and in order to save lives.

That there are baser motives for assassination is also clear: getting rid of foes, competitors or even avowed "friends" if seen to stand in the way of access to power. The history of several Arab countries is replete with examples. The record of Iraq and Syria in the 1950s and early 60s is particularly strong on assassinations in the midst of coups d'etat. Palestinians have been a particular target for Israeli assassins, but Palestinians themselves also engaged in internal liquidations on quite a few occasions.

Human rights organizations describe assassinations executed by states such as Israel, as "extra-judicial" or "non-legal" killing. The Hague Regulations of 1907 (article 23 b) prohibit "assassination" but do not define the word, over which in fact there is a dispute that in turn arises from the lack of agreement about its morality, and under what conditions it may possibly be justified.

Some states are more adept at assassinations than others. The public record of the US seems particularly dismal. Between 1961 and 1963, several attempts were made on the life of Fidel Castro and all failed. Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden were also targeted.

Some assassinations brought more tragic events in their wake. The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was followed by bloodshed and the partition of India. Some brought about the opposite of desired results such as the assassination of former Hizballah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992. He was succeeded by a more effective and charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has become Israel's nemesis in recent years. The recent assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, believed by Hizballah and most Arabs to be the work of Israel, will most likely invite retaliation, which in turn one should expect will lead to a cycle of violence. Many non-combatants will be victims, which again will raise the moral question, also in relation to the aftermath.

Palestinians have also been involved in dastardly internal killing. Suffice it to mention the well known case of cartoonist Najih a-Ali, widely believed by Palestinians to have been an "internal" job in retribution for some cartoons he published and given his popularity and influence.

It is generally agreed that while such killing may remove a specific target, it is rare that assassinations bring about radical political change. The assassination of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu-Jihad) in Tunisia in 1988 by an Israeli squad did not stop the first intifada. That was only ended after the Madrid conference and the first agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993. Nor did the assassinations of Ahmad Yasin and other Hamas leaders destabilize Hamas or create disarray in its ranks. They only brought retaliation and more violence.

If retribution is widely held to be a highly dubious justification for assassination (as opposed to the less dubious motive of saving lives), perhaps the most immoral motive is that of politicians playing to the internal gallery, in order to show that they are "doing something", or, in other words, to help keep their careers afloat.

But even if one were to imagine the emergence of a consensus on the immorality of assassination, whether practiced by states or by "non-state" actors, regrettably it does not seem realistic to expect that the practice will come to an end.- Published 13/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

George Giacaman teaches at Birzeit University and contributes political analysis to Arab and international media.

Iran: the long-term effect of political assassination
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Iran's name has been associated with state-sponsored terrorism and assassination since the Islamic revolution in 1979. But very little attention has been paid to the fact that the country itself has suffered a great deal from terrorism since the establishment of the Islamic regime 29 years ago.

From 1965, a number of Iranian opponents of the regime of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah of Iran, adopted what became popularly known as "the armed struggle". Supporters of the armed struggle against the Shah were mainly students, clergy, intellectuals, writers, university graduates and labor activists. Its pioneers were initially Marxists and younger members of the old Marxist Tudeh party. They were influenced by ideas of urban guerrilla warfare developed among South American revolutionaries during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, they were impressed by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions.

The ruthless crushing of the June 1963 uprising in support of Ayatollah Khomeini by the Shah had convinced many of these younger and more radical regime opponents that they had no alternative but to take up arms against it. Although the pioneers of the armed struggle were the Iranian Marxists, the idea soon appealed to the Islamist radicals. During the next decade, hundreds of the Islamist opponents of the Shah joined the armed struggle against the regime.

In 1965, the Peoples Mujahedin Organization of Iran was established by half a dozen Tehran University students and graduates. Similar to the radical movements in other Islamic and Arab states, most of the recruits and sympathizers were engineering and applied science students. Initially there was close cooperation between the Mujahedin and the religious opponents of the Shah, including many clerical figures who were supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Mujahedin carried out a series of attacks, including blowing up the El Al Israel Airlines office in Tehran and assassinating a number of the regime's military and security officials and a few US military personnel working in Iran during the early 1970s. The Mujahedin grew to become a large organization, attracting thousands of young Islamists. Between 1970 and 1976 the regime's notorious security organization, SAVAK, managed to smash it, imprisoning thousands of Mujahedin activists and sympathizers.

Among the detainees were many Islamists who tended to be skeptical about the Mujahedin's teachings and ideology. They felt that the Mujahedin's ideas were influenced far more by Marxism than Islam. Gradually there emerged political animosity between the more orthodox as well as conservative Islamists and those who supported the Mujahedin leadership strongly. The conversion of some of the organization's leaders to Marxism in 1975 further deepened the differences between the Mujahedin and the more conservative Islamists.

The revolutionary upheavals in 1978 did not curtail the differences between the two trends. The Islamists supported Ayatollah Khomeini's leadership wholeheartedly, while the Mujahedin only paid lip service to the ayatollah. Khomeini insisted that none of his followers take up arms against the army even though the latter had frequently fired indiscriminately on demonstrators; in contrast, the Mujahedin advocated armed struggle against the Shah and his army. Even during rallies against the regime the Mujahedin carried their own banners and placards, distancing themselves from the ayatollah's supporters.

It was after the revolution that relations between the two turned from political rivalry to armed confrontation. During the fall of the Shah, the Mujahedin captured a lot of weapons. Moreover, being well organized and possessing good intelligence, the Mujahedin obtained a lot of classified documents from SAVAK headquarters during the fall of the Shah's regime. The Mujahedin also accused the revolutionary leaders (not the ayatollah himself) and some of the ayatollah's aides of collusion with the Americans. They further accused the Islamic leaders of being reactionary and even fascist. In contrast, they regarded themselves as the progressive true voice of Islam.

In their newspapers, the Mujahedin accused the Islamic regime of being corrupt and prejudiced against women and promoting an ideology from the middle ages. The Islamic regime responded by imposing restrictions on the Mujahedin organization and its leaders. Thus the scene was set for the ultimate confrontation between the Islamic regime and the Mujahedin.

It came on June 20, 1981, the day the Mujahedin declared an armed uprising against "the backward, reactionary and inhumane regime of Khomeini". Armed members of the Mujahedin or "the militia" attacked several government buildings and tried to stage armed street demonstrations in defiance of the Revolutionary Guards or "Pasdaran". The government responded by detaining several hundred Mujahedin, thinking it had crushed the armed uprising. But the real onslaught was still to come.

On June 28, the Mujahedin planted a powerful bomb at the Islamic Republic Party headquarters; the party formed the backbone of the Islamic regime. The explosion killed 73 senior Islamic figures, including the chief justice and head of the Revolutionary Council, several ministers and dozens of members of the Majlis. Neither the Iranian leadership nor the people could believe the ferocity and hatred the Mujahedin had demonstrated. The regime responded by executing the detained Mujahedin. On August 30, the Mujahedin carried out yet another spectacular bombing. It planted a powerful explosive device that burned to death the country's president and prime minister as well as the head of the police force.

The Mujahedin were well armed and had deeply penetrated government institutions during the revolution. They assassinated hundreds of senior Islamic leaders, the rank and file of the Revolutionary Guards, the public prosecutor, head of Evin prison, Friday prayer imams and other clerical figures who supported the ayatollah. The list included unsuccessful attempts on Ali Khamenei when he was president and Hashemi Rafsanjani who was speaker of the Majlis. The regime responded by arresting every member, supporter and sympathizer of the Mujahedin and condemning them to death at the revolutionary Islamic tribunals.

Whether this bloody and ruthless confrontation between the Islamic regime and the Mujahedin could have been prevented has become a matter of historical discussion among many Iranians. In retrospect, the confrontation paved the way for political violence. It legitimized the use of terror for so-called "revolutionary objectives". But most important of all, it seriously damaged prospects for political development and democracy in Iran.- Published 13/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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