Israel’s assassination on March 22 of Sheik Ahmad Yassin, founder of the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip, has prompted Arab calls for revenge against Israeli and American targets.  His funeral in Gaza City, attended by more than 100,000 people, reflected a new tide of militancy throughout the region.  New Hamas leader Abdelaziz Rantissi ruled out any cease-fire with Israel until she ends her occupation of the Palestinian territories.  The leader of the Lebanese group Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said that his fighters would “take the harshest revenge.”  Several other groups, including Islamic Jihad, have threatened to target Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is reported to have approved the killing.

The killing of Yassin is likely to cement even further the alliance between Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism that he devoted his life to fostering.  Until a generation ago, political Islam was an almost unknown phenomenon among Palestinians.  The Arab Nationalist Movement, founded in 1950 by Georges Habache; the Fatah, started by Yasser Arafat eight years later; and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which came into being in 1964, were all secular nationalist organizations with strongly Marxist overtones.  Their slogans were largely devoid of a religious component, and they were treated with some mistrust by Muslim traditionalists.

The great realignment came with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In the absence of the failed secular god, many young Palestinians turned to Allah.  Sheikh Ahmad Yassin successfully offered them a blend of political Islam and the nationalist slogans of the secularists.  In line with Islamic teaching, he declared that, when the infidels usurp a Muslim land, jihad becomes fard-u-’ayn (compulsory) for every single Muslim.  To confront the Jews was, in Yassin’s view, not only a matter of national pride and patriotic duty but a religious obligation.  He succeeded in shifting the struggle against Israel from a “war of national liberation” to an act of worship for which Allah rewards those who sacrifice themselves.

Such religious contextualization of the Arab-Israeli dispute has made its resolution more difficult.  For all its complexities, it was somewhat easier to look for a solution while the conflict remained stated in the secular, “rational” terms of power, territory, resources, and guarantees.  Yassin did more than any other man to effect a change in the internal Arab discourse: From the point of view of his followers, no permanent peace is possible because it would be against Allah’s will to grant any piece of land once controlled by the faithful to non-Muslims.

Even if Israel is eventually recognized by all of her Arab neighbors as part of a peace package imposed by the outside world—an unlikely prospect at this time—the lasting legacy of Yassin will be that a large segment of Palestinian opinion, especially among the young who are the majority today and the leaders of tomorrow, will reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state’s existence and refuse to regard its existence as a permanent feature

of the Middle Eastern political landscape.

A mirror image of this view is the claim of some Israelis—embraced by many in the American evangelical movement—that the modern state of Israel is the embodiment of a biblical covenant.  Even the late secularist, socialist former prime minister Golda Meir once declared that “this country exists as the accomplishment of a promise made by God Himself and it would be absurd to call its legitimacy into account.”

Theological claims of both sides notwithstanding, the conflict in the Middle East is neither incomprehensible outside its own terms of reference nor unique.  It is structurally comparable to that between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, or between Orangemen and Nationalists in Ulster.  It is a zero-sum dispute, with one side’s gain the other’s loss.  In all cases, the parties vie for power and for territory that each claims as its own.  Many are willing to fight and die to take it or to preserve it.  Their claims are often accompanied by the religiously based “narratives” that are rooted in history, myth, and tradition.

The United States should treat such claims with polite respect, but we must not co-opt or internalize any of them as a relevant factor in our own security calculation.  We should be aware of the historical record of political Islam and harbor no illusions about the ultimate objective of Sheikh Yassin’s heirs, which is to destroy Israel.  At the same time, demystifying the relationship between America and Israel and redefining it in terms of mutual interests devoid of metaphysical or emotional mists would help Israel to mature into a “normal” nation-state and make a settlement more likely.

The continued existence of Israel is in the interest of the United States, on geopolitical—rather than moral or biblical—grounds.  The United States should promote a fair, genuinely even-handed settlement—based on the fundamentally sound principle of “land for peace”—that would remove the threat to Israel’s existence and include specific renunciations of religious injunctions that forbid permanent peace.  The alternative, in the long run, is the fulfilment of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin’s ugly dream.