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Israel shell-shocks world

Washington, March 22: Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin outside a Gaza mosque today, putting a backlash-wary world on the edge and paralysing diplomacy in many countries, especially in foreign offices which have close ties to Tel Aviv, such as India and the US.

The assassination of the elderly, wheelchair-bound Yassin, whose date of birth is disputed, is likely to engulf West Asia in a severe cycle of violence. It has belied even slim hopes that the so-called roadmap for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, co-sponsored by the US, Russia, the EU and the UN, could survive the current turbulence in the region.

India did not comment on the killing. It is understood that New Delhi will do so tomorrow.

The present White House, which is closely identified with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was in a tizzy 12 hours after Yassin’s assassination as it sent conflicting signals to reporters who besieged the administration for its reaction.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was available for television networks early in the morning, but she was there to defend President George W. Bush against allegations of a former top counter-terrorism aide that the president did not do enough to prevent the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

All she could say was that the US had “no advance warning” of the attack on Yassin. Like India, which was not informed in advance of the status of “major non-Nato ally” being conferred on Pakistan by US secretary of state Colin Powell.

But Israel’s foreign minister Silvan Shalom was already in the US in advance of the murder, obviously to drum up support. He spoke to reporters defending the killing after meeting Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Rice said: “It is very important that everyone step back and try now to be calm in the region.”

Indicating the paralysis in diplomacy here, a state department spokesman was non-committal in America’s initial reaction. “We are aware of reports of this incident. We are looking into the circumstances and are in touch with Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The US urges all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint.”

As its response crystallises, the US is not expected to condemn Israel, unlike the Europeans.

But in an indication of what is to come, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who is extremely careful not to jeopardise his working equations with Tel Aviv, announced that he was cancelling all celebrations on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of his country’s peace accord with Israel at Camp David.

In its reaction, expected tomorrow, India will seek to balance its friendship with Israel with the morality of targeted killings and Sharon’s policies of brinkmanship in dealing with Palestinians.

But it is expected that at the end of the day, India will be critical of the Israeli action. Indian officials are on record in the past that Hamas is not a terrorist organisation.

There have been allegations that in its efforts to get India to condemn and act against Hamas, Israel has been passing spurious intelligence to Indians about the activities of the organisation within India, especially in Hyderabad and Lucknow.

Some time ago, such intelligence is said to have started a futile manhunt for Hamas activists from Gaza visiting Hyderabad. Three Palestinians were also arrested in Lucknow on suspicion of subversive activities on behalf of Hamas, only to be released without being charged.

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