Israel Assassinates Hamas' Ringleader Ahmed Yassin

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report with Brit Hume", March 23 that has been edited for clarity.

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PRESIDENT BUSH: As far as the Middle East (search), it's a troubled region. And the attacks were troubling.


BRIT HUME, HOST: That was the president today, of course, on Israel's killing yesterday of Hamas' ringleader Ahmed Yassin (search). His use of the word "troubling" was far milder than the criticism that poured forth from Europe and Muslim leaders yesterday; including Britain's Jack Straw (search), who called the attack illegal and unlikely to succeed in its goals.

For more on what those goals might be, we're joined from Israel by Bret Stephens, editor of the "Jerusalem Post."

Mr. Stephens, first of all, what do you say and what does the Israeli government say to the idea that when you conduct one of these attacks on a prominent leader, even in some quarters, I suppose, a beloved leader, that this only promotes and incites more terrorism and creates more terrorists?

BRET STEPHENS, EDITOR, "JERUSALEM POST": Well, I think it is particularly rich coming from someone like Mr. Straw. I doubt very much he would make the argument that if Usama bin Laden were killed or captured that would incite terrorism. I think quite the contrary.

But we have a great deal of empirical evidence that shows that far from inciting terrorism, targeted attacks against leaders like Ahmed Yassin and Rantisi actually decrease terrorism. In 2002, Israel suffered about 450 fatalities to terror. The next year, after a great many targeted assassinations, targeted killings by Israel and general offensive against terrorist infrastructures, Israel suffered only 213. So, the idea that terrorists cannot be deterred militarily, that we can't do anything against them, we can't prevent them from striking is a false one.

HUME: Now in addition to that, of course, there's been the building of this fence and I guess wall. The fence and wall are incomplete. Of course, in the West Bank, they are complete. It is complete around Gaza. What has been the net effect of that? That's another action, of course, which has been described by some western leaders as provocative, even in some quarters by the United States. So, what about that?

STEPHENS: Well, there, too, I mean that is yet another measure that Israel has taken that's measurably improved its security. We've had very few terrorist attacks coming directly from the Gaza Strip, because the Gaza Strip is surrounded by a fence. Now that there is a fence in the northern area of the West Bank, we have seen a significant decline in terrorist attacks coming in northern Israeli cities.

So I mean the fence too is, you know, which again as you mentioned, has been savagely attacked as illegal, has been saving innocent life. So, again, it strikes me as bizarre that anyone could attack it, certainly on moral grounds.

HUME: Let me ask you about Yassin himself. He is seen as -- I mean you even hear him described in some quarters as a spiritual leader. Although he is obviously not a cleric -- or was not obviously a cleric of any kind, but he is a 66-year-old man, he appears to be extremely -- appeared to be extremely frail, he was in a wheelchair, had been for many years. How much real operational control or direct authority did he really have in terms of ordering these continuing attacks?

STEPHENS: Well, I mean, I think there is some question as to whether he was actually sitting down with the terrorist planners and telling them precisely what to do. But he provided the moral impetus. He provided the theological license for them to carry out the kinds of attacks that they were carrying out.

He is -- he was the founder of Hamas. He was the man who gave the movement its animating spirit. Which of course, is complete rejection of the state of Israel's right to exist and the complete rejection of the right of Jews to exist here. So he was, in a sense, the mastermind of Hamas' planned general sides against Jews in Israel. And his departure, I think, is definitely a good thing for Israel.

HUME: The -- there is an impression that seems -- and the United States has run into this thinking as well in its actions dealing with terrorists in Iraq. And that is this -- that the presence of the U.S. in that region, the influence of Israel and the military actions taken by the U.S. in Iraq by Israel in dealing with the Palestinians, that more of these people that are killed, the more terrorists spring up. The more people are emboldened to become terrorists and that basically it is -- it has the reverse effect than the effect that it's designed to have. Now you've already recited the statistics, but what about the thinking that this inspires terrorists?

STEPHENS: I actually think the thinking approaches racism, because you know the view is that either Palestinians or Iraqis basically behave like weeds. Which is to say, you know, mowing them down makes them grow back faster and stronger.

I mean most of us in the West and Israel understand that there is such a thing called deterrence. People can be moved by fear. People can operate on a, you know, cost benefit analyses.

But you know, there is the suggestion in that analysis that Palestinians or Iraqis cannot be deterred, that you know, they are sort of inspired -- mindlessly inspired to terrorism and violence by whatever the United States or Israel does. I mean I think it is a very pernicious thinking. And as I mentioned earlier, the statistical evidence simply doesn't bear that contention out.

HUME: Give me your sense about Rantisi. He obviously is the new guy. The Israeli government has been after him before. Would you imagine that before long he will be dead as well? And what effect do you expect that to have?

STEPHENS: Well, I don't want to predict what the IDF is going to do. I mean senior Israeli leaders have already said Rantisi is a marked man. As your report mentioned, they attempted to assassinate him in June.

I was hearing a report and he is bragging that he, you know, he is not a man intimidated by Israel. But it is notable that immediately following the attempted target -- his attempted targeted killing in June, Hamas unilaterally declared a cease-fire. So I think one should take his efforts to seem fearless with a certain grain of salt.

HUME: Bret Stephens, thank you very much.

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