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Professor: Sharon 'taking confrontation to new level'

Professor Fawaz Gerges
Professor Fawaz Gerges

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Abdel Aziz Rantizi was against compromise with Israel and a critic of the Palestinian Authority.

Early footage and reports of the attack against Rantisi.
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(CNN) -- Saturday the Israel Defense Forces launched an airstrike on the car of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, killing him and two others.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, joined CNN's Fredricka Whitfield by phone to discuss the violence in the Mideast.

WHITFIELD: We haven't heard an official explanation from the Israeli government yet, but it is expected that they will say this was justified. Is it?

GERGES: The Israeli government has made it very clear that the entire senior leadership of Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad are marked for assassination. We have the right to be shocked, but should not be surprised.

Two points here.

After the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Hamas vowed to avenge his death. It has been more than two weeks, and Hamas has not been able to respond. So, I think that convinced Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the infrastructure of Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad had been destroyed.

Secondly I think that Sharon believes he has the green light from the Bush administration. Even though most European governments and world governments condemned the assassination of Yassin, the Bush administration did not.

The most recent meeting [between Sharon and President Bush] also represented a strategy shift on the part of the Bush administration. For the first time, the United States now does not look at settlements as illegal or obstacles.

I think the Bush administration made it very clear that the Israeli clash with the Palestinians is an extension of the U.S. war on terrorism. And I think Sharon has succeeded in convincing the Bush administration that his struggle with the Palestinians is similar to the American war against terrorism.

Secondly I think we need to understand that the Bush administration has refused to condemn the assassinations ... of Palestinian leaders.

All these steps have convinced Ariel Sharon that he has a green light to move against Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad. A few days ago, Sharon said even Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, is marked for assassination. Yet the Bush administration moved very quick to say that the United States is opposed to the assassination of Arafat.

Sharon believes he has a historical opportunity, a major military opportunity, to really escalate the confrontation against Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad and to do it for good. But what we need to remember is that escalation begets counter-escalation, and I believe that violence will bring about more violence. And the peace process becomes more and more distant. More Jewish and Palestinian blood will likely be shed as a result of today's events.

WHITFIELD: Is it your gut feeling that the assassination of Yassin perhaps put Rantisi on notice like never before?

GERGES: The Israeli government tried to kill Rantisi last June, and he escaped with some injuries. I think Rantisi was considered by the Israeli government as one of the most radical leaders, and has always been a target. I think after his election by Hamas, he became target No. 1.

The big point I want to make is that the Israeli government made it very clear that the entire senior echelon of Hamas and [Islamic] Jihad leadership, who number around 72 leaders, are marked for assassination. I think Sharon believes he can win this struggle militarily and force the Palestinians to accept his vision of peace.

Since 1948, Israel has won almost every war against Arabs and the Palestinians. But it has not been able to impose a peace settlement on its Arab neighbors. This is why I believe today's events will not contribute to bringing the Palestinians and Israelis closer to a peace settlement.

And this is why it is essential that the Bush administration gets actively involved in trying to at least exercise the restraint of not just the Palestinians, but also Sharon. Because with Sharon thinking he has a green light from the Bush administration, he's taking the confrontation to a new level.

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