WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- Just back from a visit to the White House armed with a green light from President Bush to implement his plan on how to deal with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost little time. On Saturday Israeli helicopters fired a missile at Hamas chief Abdel Aziz Rantisi, killing him and his two bodyguards just outside his home in Gaza city.
Rantisi had escaped an earlier assassination attempt in 2003.
Rantisi would have presided over Hamas less than a month. He had just recently been named to head the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas. He took over last March 24, after the movement's founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Amhed Yassin, was killed in a similar manner two days earlier. The elderly, militant, wheelchair-bound, quadriplegic cleric was returning home from morning prayers in a Gaza mosque when an Israeli missile killed him and his bodyguards.
Yassin's elimination angered Palestinians and raised a storm of protests across the Arab and Islamic world. Many saw it as an Israeli tactic meant to send Hamas a message prior to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. Pulling on tough lessons learned from their earlier retreat from south Lebanon in 2000, Israel did not want Hamas to feel vindicated and regard the Gaza pullout under the same light as their coreligionists in south Lebanon.
For years, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, harassed Israeli positions in southern Lebanon, attacking troops and killing Israeli soldiers, setting off roadside bombs, and even kidnapping some Israeli soldiers. In the end, when Israel hastily withdrew from southern Lebanon, redeploying back across the international frontier and abandoning their client Christian militias in the process, Hezbollah claimed victory.
But the real victory for Hezbollah, if not military, was certainly psychological -- a point that was not missed by the Palestinians conducting the intifada in Gaza and the West Bank. Many started thinking that if Hezbollah could break Israel's will, so too, could Hamas and other Palestinian groups.
"Israel," admitted a senior Israeli official speaking off the record to United Press International, "would never want to repeat the mistake of south Lebanon." This conversation took place only a week before Yassin's killing.
Speaking hypothetically and stressing that he was not privy to inside information but only assuming what Israel might consider as a plan of action, the official advanced the theory that Israel might target the Hamas leadership prior to their unilateral pullout from the occupied territory, so that "it would not be viewed as a victory, as in south Lebanon."
Rantisi's killing on Saturday will come across in the Arab world looking as though it was carried out with Bush's blessing, having taken place so soon after Sharon's return from Washington and the American president's public and open support of the prime minister's plan.
With tensions rising as a result of the siege of Fallujah, where more than 700 Iraqis have been killed, and the fighting against Moqtada Sadr's Shiites, this latest incident in the Palestinian territories could not have come at a worse time for the United States.
Last week Bush stood at Sharon's side in the White House in front of television cameras and declared his unwavering support of the Israeli prime minister and his plans to retain "for ever" parts of the occupied West Bank, thus endorsing Israel's claims to parts of the territory seized during the 1967 Six Day War. The Arabs saw this as a monumental slap in the face.
Bush even went a few steps further, reversing previous U.S. policy, and offered Sharon a letter outlining Washington's support, which he called "historic and courageous."
Bush declared that the Palestinian refugees should not expect to exercise their "right of return," calling it "unrealistic." Instead, the president affirmed that those refugees wishing to move back should plan on settling in the future Palestinian state, and not in their homes inside Israel.
Saturday's attack on the Hamas chief will come across in the Middle East as though it was carried out with prior U.S. knowledge and approval, and will contribute towards accusations of America's pro-Israeli bias. At this point, even if President Bush were to condemn Israel's actions -- something the president is unlikely to do in any case -- it would hold little credibility.
Bush's blatant support of Sharon's initiative is placing the American president's political aspirations of instilling democracy in the area in great jeopardy, warned a number of Middle East observers. And that was before Rantisi's killing. Now the only place the president's Middle East Road Map is likely to lead to, is just greater chaos.