WASHINGTON, March 22 (UPI) -- When, in May 2000, the Israelis pulled out of southern Lebanon it was a toss-up which was the bigger humiliation: having to abandon the "safety corridor" they had held for 22 years or witnessing the militant Islamic movement Hezbollah's public jubilation at the defeat of the most powerful army in the Middle East.
Almost four years later there will not be much celebrating in Gaza when the Israeli army completes its promised withdrawal. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right-wing Likud government has seen to that.
The loss of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the "spiritual" leader of the extremist Palestinian group Hamas, who was killed Monday, will cast a shadow on the departure of the Israeli military. Sharon's government has a long-standing policy of assassinating key Palestinian militants. But as the most popular figure in Gaza and the Palestinian West Bank, second only to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat himself, Yassin was their most important human target so far.
The timing of the hit is also Sharon's vendetta for having to quit Gaza, observers believe. If Hamas wants to claim victory for the withdrawal announced unilaterally by the Israeli prime minister on Feb. 2, it will have been won at the price of the death of their revered leader.
According to some analysts, Israel's failure to make a dent in Palestinian opposition in Gaza is, if anything, more embarrassing than the pullout from southern Lebanon, because on the face of it armed Palestinian opposition, including Hamas, is less well organized and equipped than the Syrian-backed, military arm of the Hezbollah movement.
In the violent cycle of Israeli-Palestinian strike and counter-strike, killing Yassin is payback for the suicide bombing on March 14 in the Israeli port of Ashdod by two young Palestinians who smuggled themselves out of Gaza hiding in a container truck. Ten Israelis were killed in the attack, and on the same day, according to an Israeli source, the Israeli government reacted by taking the decision that Sheikh Yassin had to go, and Sharon himself personally supervised the assassination.
The founder of the Hamas movement escaped an earlier attempt on his life in September 2003 when a building he was visiting was bombed. On that occasion, he was only slightly injured.
On Monday, the wheelchair-bound, 68-year-old, quadriplegic cleric was hit in a helicopter rocket attack as he left a mosque near his north Gaza home after dawn prayers. Killed with him were seven other people, including one of his sons and his bodyguards.
In condemning the assassination, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Yassin was "known for his moderation, and he controlled Hamas. As a result, it was a cowardly and dangerous act."
Yassin was hardly moderate, but Qureia is right about his control of Hamas, and about the fact that killing him was a dangerous act. Without Yassin, observers believe, firstly, that Hamas has nobody with authority to negotiate with the Israelis should the situation -- admittedly remote at present -- arise, and to make any deal stick with Hamas extremists who want to fight to the death.
Secondly, taking out Yassin may leave Hamas without its charismatic leader, but is not likely to diminish the Islamist group's determination to keep up its attacks on Israelis, even though that was presumably the Sharon government's purpose in assassinating him. Predictably, the Islamic movement has promised that "the earth will shake" with the impact of its retaliation, and "the death of hundreds of Israelis." If Hamas is not successful in attempts, it will not be for lack of effort.
Yassin's death leaves Hamas in the hands of the movements's most radical figure, Abdel Aziz al-Rantassi, who had himself escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in June of last year. On Monday, he declared "open war against the assassins."
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza further reinforces the Hamas belief that terrorism is more effective then negotiation in dealing with Israel, and invalidates the Oslo peace agreement which remains the basis for the Palestinian Authority's negotiations with the Israeli government.
Yassin's assassination was immediately condemned by the European Union. The Bush administration appealed for calm. But the other factor in Israel's deciding to "decapitate" Hamas was that in an election year, Sharon could gamble on getting no grief from Washington.