The Subtle Shades of Villainy

Nicholas Goldberg, Op-Ed editor of the Los Angeles Times, covered the Middle East for Newsday in the late 1990s.

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the 67-year-old founder and spiritual leader of Hamas who was assassinated by Israel last week, looked almost saintly when I met him in Gaza shortly after his release from an Israeli prison in 1997. Wheelchair-ridden, wearing a white headscarf and robe, he had limp hands and sad eyes, and when he spoke of his love for his homeland -- and his support for the suicide bombers who were seeking to “liberate” it -- his voice was soft, almost childlike.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the incongruity of Yassin’s personal demeanor and the violent mission he embraced. Although President Bush likes to speak of “the terrorist” as a monolithic personality type, as someone who “rejoices in suicide, incites murder and celebrates every death we mourn,” the reality, of course, is far more complex.

It has been more than 40 years since Hannah Arendt, covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, observed that the face of evil “was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” Eichmann was quotidian, a bureaucrat. Adolf Hitler was charismatic. Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States, has a chubby, babyish face and unusually twinkly eyes. In Peshawar, Pakistan, I met an Islamic fighter, dressed in black and back from the jihad across the border in Afghanistan, who spoke slowly and carefully, intelligently and with an earnest eagerness to persuade that was in contrast to his violent message.

Just because Yassin spoke sadly and smiled helplessly from his wheelchair doesn’t mean he was harmless. And it certainly doesn’t change the moral equation: The organization he led and inspired had been directly responsible for the deaths of scores of Israeli civilians, and at the time I met him it was in the process of almost single-handedly scuttling the Arab-Israeli peace process.

I knew all that perfectly well, but despite it, I was surprised by his appearance.


Now, if you’re looking for a militant who plays the role more traditionally, Abdulaziz Rantisi, the middle-aged pediatrician who was designated the new leader of Hamas last week after the assassination of Yassin, is a better bet. He is not earnest or charming or particularly eager to please or persuade. Angry, loud, bitter and fiery, he is central casting’s idea of a terrorist, an expert practitioner of terror-speak, the familiar rhetoric of militant movements around the world. “The Palestinian intifada will continue until the last Zionist is banished,” he has said. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he said, is “a liar, terrorist, Nazi ... with God’s help Hamas will strike all of Israel a blow and will kill both Sharon the cur and his friend [former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon] Peres.” On the occasions I have seen Rantisi, his eyes flashed with anger when he talked, and his arms waved. He seemed dangerous; one was careful around him.

Rantisi no doubt feels he has reason to be angry. At 56, he is part of the second generation of Palestinian leaders fighting the Jewish state, born at the very moment of what is known in Arabic as the Nakba -- the 1948 “catastrophe” that marked the birth of Israel and the “dispossession” of the Palestinians. An early member of Hamas, he spent seven years in Israeli prisons. Last June, he narrowly escaped assassination when Israeli attack helicopters rained missiles down on his car, wounding him and killing a bodyguard and three bystanders.

Americans and Israelis tend to see people like Rantisi and Yassin much as Bush sees them: outside the legitimate spectrum of public debate. These are brutal, wanton killers who do not value life as we do and who are not under any circumstances to be negotiated with. We see them without nuance; we make few distinctions between them. We generally refuse to acknowledge fissures in their organization or the possibility of any evolution in their thinking.

But in the West Bank and Gaza, there’s a whole different calculus. There, Hamas is a real part of the discussion.

Even among those Palestinians who support the idea of peace and who believe in a two-state solution, Hamas is generally seen not as a terrorist organization but as a legitimate political “faction.” This is not just because of the group’s well-known support of schools, mosques and health clinics, which fill vital needs in a chaotic society -- but because its members are viewed, even by those who object to their tactics, as heroic defenders of the homeland.

Most Palestinians don’t see Hamas violence as all that different from Israeli violence -- the missiles that kill Hamas leaders kill civilians as well, and Palestinians don’t acknowledge a moral distinction. They utterly reject the Western argument that suicide bombings that kill Israelis are heartless and wanton but that the deaths of Palestinian civilians resulting from Israeli airstrikes constitute legitimate “self-defense.” More than 2,750 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces since the most recent intifada began in September 2000, compared with about 950 Israelis who have died at the hands of Palestinians. “The Jews attack and kill our civilians; we will kill their civilians, too,” was the way Yassin put it.

Twenty percent of the Palestinian population supports Hamas, according to a poll conducted in December by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, and it would be wrong to conclude that the rest of the population opposes it. Yassin outpolled any other leader except Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and Rantisi, too, showed up well ahead of most of the more “moderate” Palestinians.

Rantisi’s chances of long-term survival don’t seem all that much better than Yassin’s were. Sharon’s government has made it clear it considers all Hamas leaders legitimate targets. Murderers are murderers, is the Israeli point of view. When a Yassin or a Rantisi is killed, it weakens Hamas, sends a message to the organization’s supporters and creates a potent disincentive for those who would be his successors.

But Israel’s inability -- or perhaps its unwillingness -- to make distinctions among terrorists, to see nuances in Palestinian politics or to take into account the mood of the Palestinian street is worrisome. Yassin’s death may or may not be morally defensible -- Kofi Annan and many Western leaders called it an unjustifiable, extra-judicial killing in violation of international law -- but either way, it is hard to see how it will have any result other than to inflame the population at a moment when Palestinians see little hope for peace.

I don’t feel sympathy for Yassin. He was a soldier in a war of his own choosing, and it killed him. But the cause of peace is not served by provocative, macho and arguably illegal moves, and it’s hard to see how Yassin’s assassination qualifies as anything else. Peace may seem distant, but it is still the goal, isn’t it?