The assassination of Sheikh Yassin highlights once again the ruthlessness of the Israeli state.
The official reason for the murder was retaliation for the suicide bombs that killed ten Israelis in Ashdod. But how to explain the timing? Media pundits have suggested it was a sop to appease the right wing in Sharon's cabinet following his proposed withdrawal from parts of the Gaza Strip, or else a means of denying Hamas any sense of victory from a unilateral Israeli pullout. But it is incongruous to argue there are elements more right wing than Sharon. His whole record of working for a Greater Israel from the Jordan to the Mediterranean suggests that he has no intention of ceding any land to, or of negotiating seriously with, the Palestinians. On the darkest scenario, retaliation generated by the assassination will be an excuse for Sharon to begin carrying out his long-held aim of ethnic cleansing.
It is far more likely that the assassination is a means of staving off pressure from Washington in a presidential election year. Bush badly needs a foreign policy success such as a revival of the peace process. Under phase one of the defunct 'road map' Israel was required to withdraw from areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip re-occupied since 28 September 2000, and to freeze all settlement activity. Now, Sharon knows full well that the sheikh's murder is likely to unleash a torrent of attacks, including suicide bombings. He will have fabricated an excuse to put off yet again any serious concessions. As always, Israel carries out a major attack in order to provoke a reaction and then claim that 'Palestinian terror' makes negotiation impossible.
More generally, the 700-kilometre apartheid wall that Israel is building to allegedly prevent Palestinian suicide bombers from entering Israel is galvanising increasing layers of the Palestinian people of the occupied West Bank into a growing mass struggle that seems to represent a shift in the pattern of resistance.
Since the current intifada broke out in September 2000, there have been three broad phases:
(1) Sharon's provocative walk to the Al Aqsa mosque in occupied East Jerusalem provoked spontaneous mass demonstrations throughout Palestine. The Israeli police responded with live ammunition inciting armed Palestinian police to respond in kind.
(2) Within a few months, a second phase emerged - a decline of mass activity which gave way to a combination of a very unequal armed struggle between Palestinian militias and the Israeli army, and suicide bombings. Mass action took the form largely of protests at the funerals of fighters or civilian victims of Israeli attacks.
(3) With the confiscation of Palestinian land and the destruction of olive groves to make way for the apartheid wall, a new phase seems to be emerging. In recent months there has been a growing number of militant demonstrations involving unarmed direct action by West Bank villagers threatened by the wall. This development has been almost totally ignored by the British media.
For example the village of Budrus, near Ramallah, was faced with enclosure by the wall, which would cut them off from all their land and contain only one gate to the outside world. On 30 December a bulldozer headed for the first olive grove to be destroyed. Hundreds of villagers marched towards it, including schoolchildren. They were greeted by soldiers firing teargas and rubber bullets. An old woman broke through the line of soldiers and ran towards the bulldozer, throwing herself into the hole it had dug. A small girl jumped into the bulldozer's scooper. That day the people marching to the trees, armed only with songs of freedom, forced the soldiers and the bulldozer to retreat.
Since the events in Budrus there have been at least 13 mass demonstrations against the construction of the wall, with hundreds of unarmed villagers throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or taking direct action against bulldozers due to clear their land - in Mediya, setting one alight. The enormous courage displayed by the Palestinians was underlined by the fact that three were killed in the protest at Buddu.
The new mass resistance recalls the militant days of the first intifada (1987-92) which generated an unprecedented level of collective activity - mass demonstrations, strikes and boycotts of Israeli goods - relying exclusively on activists armed with nothing more than stones pitted against the world's fourth most powerful army.
Tragically, the Palestinians have neither the military nor the economic power to defeat the Israeli state on their own. But it is to be hoped that the current renewal of mass resistance will sound a clarion call to the Arab masses throughout the Middle East who alone have the capacity to defeat Zionism and imperialism in order to bring about radical change throughout the region.