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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 11:05 GMT
Show of strength before Gaza pullout

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin was probably designed to show that an Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza as the first stage of a strategy of "disengagement" is motivated by design not weakness.

Tyres burn in Gaza protest after Yassin death
Burning anger in Gaza after Yassin death

The implementation of this strategy requires, in the Israeli view, strikes against Hamas and similar groups, which would otherwise declare victory when the Israeli forces leave.

Hamas and its allies will probably make such a declaration anyway.

The fact that Sheikh Yassin was in a wheelchair did not protect him against an Israeli government which regarded him as a terrorist leader whose philosophy had put many Israelis into wheelchairs themselves.

Israeli decision to act

The double suicide bombing in the southern Israeli port of Ashdod last week, which was organised from Gaza, gave Israel a more immediate reason to act.

Prompted by the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose instincts as a former general are always to aim for dramatic action, the cabinet subsequently decided to go for the top Hamas leadership again.

The overall lesson to be drawn from these events is that there is really no prospect for peace, that the roadmap has been rolled up and that another 20 years of war is the most likely scenario.

Impressions of three ministers

This was certainly the impression I gained from attending briefings given by three Israeli cabinet ministers who passed through London recently.

They were the Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, the Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and the Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

All three made diplomatic mention of the roadmap, the international plan for peace between Israel and a new state of Palestine (which under the plan was supposed to have been announced in provisional form at the end of last year).

Underneath, though, their mood was far grimmer and it was clear that they had embarked on a different strategy.

The roadmap has turned out to be a road to nowhere. In its absence, Israel is proposing a map of its own.
The status quo needs to be changed and we are ready to do this. We will start in Gaza and then turn to the West Bank
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

It involves a withdrawal from Gaza, apart perhaps from a narrow strip along the Egyptian border to stop tunnelling, the completion of the barrier in the West Bank, the abandonment of some West Bank settlements and the defence of others.

The result would be a disengagement or separation. This is how Ehud Olmert put it: "We decided it was no use waiting for the Palestinians to implement the vision of President Bush and the roadmap.

"Time is of the essence. The status quo needs to be changed and we are ready to do this. We will start in Gaza and then turn to the West Bank."

'Different from Lebanon'

He signalled the Israeli government's determination not to allow a withdrawal from Gaza to be seen as weakness.

"This is different from Lebanon," he said, referring to the Israeli departure from its security or occupation zone in 2000. "That created an impression of running away and a strong sense of weakness."

The Israeli government needs to create a sense of confidence that it knows what it is doing as it prepares to present its plan to the Americans and then offer it to a referendum at home.

The assassination of Sheikh Yassin is also a sign that the Israeli government has more or less given up on the Palestinian Authority.

It must know that Hamas is likely to be strengthened by the death of its leader. Hamas has already declared that the attack has "opened the gates of hell".

The Palestinian Authority itself is in despair, with the Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei desperately calling for an American intervention.

Israel must have decided that a war of attrition is its best form of defence.

That is not unusual in Israeli history. Israel waged a long war against the Palestine Liberation Organisation until the Oslo peace accords gave a brief glimpse of peace.

The war against Hamas also has a long way to go.

The BBC's Wyre Davies
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