Will an (alleged) assassination shatter the Hamas-Israel cease-fire?

 Hamas is claiming that one of its leaders,  Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was killed by Israeli operatives in his hotel in Dubai on January 20 and threatening a response "in the appropriate place and time."  The story is all over the Arab media, in many cases as a red-bannered breaking news story.   Israel does not yet have a comment that I've seen. Hamas says that UAE authorities are cooperating in the investigation, and the first reports out of Dubai are that the killers were European and part of a "professional criminal gang".  Whatever the truth of the incident, the alleged assassination threatens to disrupt the uneasy ceasefire which has held between Hamas and Israel over the last year, and to further strain the already dismal prospects of either Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, attempts to alleviate the suffering of Gaza, or a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  Let's hope that it doesn't spark a new cycle of violence.

The de facto cease-fire between Hamas and Israel has been no secret.   Israelis have often pointed to these efforts by Hamas to prevent attacks against Israel over the last year as evidence that Operation Cast Lead succeeded in establishing deterrence.  As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said, for instance, "The deterrence achieved during Operation Cast Lead still exists, and it is strong."   Palestinian Authority (Ramallah) Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad similarly raised some eyebrows at Davos yesterday by highlighting that in practice Hamas and the PA agreed on security: "it is clear that Hamas has been trying to prevent attacks on Israel, it is no secret, it has been trying to do that, it is not saying it is doing it but it is doing it.”   This argument has been used against Hamas by its Arab rivals such as Egypt and the PA, who have pointed to the de facto ceasefire to mock their claims to be "resisting" Israel.   Israelis, including Barak, have argued repeatedly that what rocket fire there has been from Gaza has been due to the difficulties Hamas has faced in controlling more radical groups --- not from Hamas itself.

Why would Israel put this de facto ceasefire at risk by an assassination?  First off, it's impossible to say at this point whether they did --- no evidence has yet been presented to back up Hamas's claims.  Much of the Arab public immediately believed it, though, as it immediately recalled the botched operation against Khaled Meshaal in  Amman a decade ago, as well as the assassinations of leading Hamas figures such as Ahmed Yassin and Abd al-Aziz al-Rentissi in 2004.    That doesn't mean that it's true.  But since Hamas has already gone public with the accusation and promised revenge, it may spark off a dangerous cycle anyway. 

What if it's true?  There should be questions about the legitimacy and morality of assassinating one's enemies abroad, one would think.  But that seems unlikely in this day and age, when the United States openly brags of its Predator strikes, discusses them primarily in terms of whether or not they "work" as opposed to whether or not they are legal or morally acceptable,  and muses about whether or not to target Anwar al-Awlaki (the radical Islamist in Yemen who is also an American citizen).   The international norms against such assassinations have been thoroughly degraded by the Global War on Terror, and the Obama administration has  escalated rather than reined in such measures.

So the real debate is more likely to be about the logic of the assassination and whether it "works."   But it's not obvious what that would even mean in this context -- it makes little strategic sense.    If Israelis and the PA both acknowledge that Hamas has been controlling attacks against Israel from Gaza, what is gained by a provocation such as this?  Would it have "worked" if Hamas fails to respond,  demonstrating its impotence?  Would it have "worked" if Hamas does respond, killing innocent Israeli civilians and possibly triggering another round of horrific violence?  Would it have "worked" if a Hamas retaliation (or even an unfulfilled threat of retaliation) offers a pretext for maintaining or intensifying the blockade of Gaza?   At this point I'm seeing a blizzard of Arab commentary on the subject but no real consensus.   But smaller things have sparked disastrous confrontations in the past, and I only hope that this one does not. 

UPDATE:  as a friend points out, "it makes no sense" hardly rules it out.  Just looking back at the botched 1997 Israeli assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, as masterfully chronicled in Paul McGeough's Kill Khaled, is enough to show that.  The Meshaal episode, also authorized by a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, targeted the rising Hamas leader on the streets of Israel's closest partner in the Arab world using agents holding foreign (Canadian) passports.  King Hussein was so furious and humiliated that he demanded not only an antidote to the poison used on Meshaal but also the release of a number of Hamas leaders from Israeli prisons (including Shaykh Ahmed Yassin).   It would have been difficult to make a sensible case for that attempt either.   So we'll just see how this one unfolds, I'm afraid. 


Marc Lynch

Arabs reject U.S. crackdown on Arab satellite TV

A meeting of Arab Information Ministers at the Arab League in Cairo yesterday rejected a Congressional resolution calling for sanctions against Arab satellite television stations which allegedly incite terrorism or promote anti-Americanism.  It would be pretty pathetic that the Arab League -- the Arab League!! -- is taking a stronger position in favor of media freedoms than the U.S. Congress.  But don't worry --- leading Arab states still seem quite keen to find their own Arab ways to repress and control the media.   

The Congressional resolution (H.R.2278), which passed 395-3 in December (and hopefully will die in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) is a perfect example of mindless grandstanding which pleases domestic audiences while hurting American interests in the Arab world. 
The resolution complains of anti-American incitement on Arab TV, specifically mentioning Hezbollah's al-Manar, Hamas's al-Aqsa, and the Iraqi al-Zawra. It calls for the Obama administration to produce a country-by-country list of Arab TV stations which incite violence and to urge official and private sanctions against those deemed to be carrying out such incitement.  Who in the U.S. Congress is going to speak out or vote against complaining about al-Manar or al-Aqsa?  

But of course, it's not so simple.  Once the U.S. gets into the business of imposing sanctions against television stations deemed hostile, it's a very slippery slope.   The definition of anti-American incitement is impossibly broad: "The term ‘anti-American incitement to violence’ means the act of persuading, encouraging, instigating, advocating, pressuring, or threatening so as to cause another to commit a violent act against any person, agent, instrumentality, or official of, is affiliated with, or is serving as a representative of the United States."  Almost any critical discussion of American foreign policy on Arab TV could conceivably fit into that definition -- and given the realities of Arab views of U.S. foreign policy, any remotely free and independent Arab media will include plenty of such criticism. 

Furthermore,  H.R. 2278 calls for the U.S. to "designate as Specially Designated Global Terrorists satellite providers that knowingly and willingly contract with entities designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists."  The list of such SDGT's is currently some 443 pages long, and includes such Arab political figures as  Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the influential Islamist figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi [*].    Every serious news organization in the Arab world airs interviews with Meshaal, and Qaradawi is a fixture on al-Jazeera, which is both by far the most popular Arab satellite TV station and was conspicuously not named in the text of H.R. 2278.   If simply airing interviews with someone like Meshaal becomes grounds for labeling a TV station a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, then literally almost every single Arab TV station would be so designated --- because no serious Arab TV station could cover the news in the region while ignoring Hamas, Hezbollah, or other figures on the list. 

In short, H.R. 2278 is a deeply irresponsible bill which sharply contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage.   Even Arab governments who despise Hamas and Hezbollah and Qaradawi and al-Jazeera could not sign on to it.   Instead, such governments proposed a pan-Arab Media Commission which would monitor and regulate political content on satellite TV -- an idea which was floated in spring 2008, and mercifully failed.    Fortunately, that proposal has again been shelved.  The last thing the Arab world needs right now is more state power of censorship over the media -- whether the Arab League over satellite TV or the Jordanian government over the internet.  Hillary Clinton just laid out a vision of an America committed to internet freedom, and that should be embraced as part of a broader commitment to free and open media.  Nobody should be keen on restoring the power of authoritarian governments over one of the few zones of relative freedom which have evolved over the last decade.  

[*] Several friends with experience with such terrorist lists dinged in to clarify that Qaradawi is on an American terrorist exclusion list, but -- despite hundreds of internet reports to the contrary -- is NOT on the Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.   That's a good thing!  But apologies for the confusion, and anybody who links through to this post should note this important correction.