SIXTY-TWO years ago the British Government pulled off one of its most daring wartime coups in the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe. A team of four agents, backed by the Czech Government in exile and trained by MI6, succeeded in assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of Bohemia and Moravia whose brutal rule had earned him the title, "the Butcher of Prague".
In January 1942 he had presided at the Wannsee Conference which initiated the Holocaust. But on May 27, 1942 he was ambushed by Czech fighters as he drove out of Prague. The Nazi state accorded Heydrich a magnificent funeral and Hitler mourned a soulmate whom he considered "irreplaceable". The Germans then inflicted a terrible revenge, making an example of the Czech village of Lidice, killing every male over the age of 16.
Targeted killings are, as you can see, morally fraught. The assassination of Heydrich deprived the Nazi killing machine of one of its spiritual leaders. But that strategic gain was secured at the price of a backlash, in which innocent lives were lost.
The assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin raises its own moral questions. Like Heydrich, the Sheikh was the intellectual organiser of a mass murder campaign directed against Jewish civilians. The organisation he set up in 1988, Hamas, has been responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths, including the killing of at least 20 young people outside the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv in June 2001, the murder of 15 people at the Sbarro pizza restaurant in Jerusalem in August 2001 and the bombing of a commuter bus in Jerusalem in June 2003 which claimed another 15 lives.
These killings have been in pursuit of an ideological agenda as uncompromisingly anti-Semitic and as spiritually dedicated to violence as National Socialism itself. Hamas believes that Israel has no right to exist, Palestine must be purged of the Zionists from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea and a fundamentalist Islamic state erected on its territory. The Hamas covenant proclaims: "there is no solution for the Palestinian question except through jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavours." The covenant also makes clear who are to be targeted, the Jews, who are held responsible, inter alia, for both world wars, control of the world media and the creation of "Zionist organisations under various names and shapes, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, espionage groups, and others".
Yesterday, the BBC correspondent, Zubeida Malik, described Sheikh Yassin on The World At One as "polite, charming and witty, a deeply religious man". On the same programme the Arab journalist Abdul Bari-Atwan, editor of the influential newspaper Al-Quds, memorialised him as "a moderate man in his way".
Some people in the BBC may consider it witty to call for the elimination of the Jewish people from their homeland. Others might consider it the charming hallmark of a deeply religious man to recruit, incite and inspire young men to kill civilians. And clearly it is no bar to success in Arab journalism to define as "moderate" someone who thought the Jews started both world wars and continue to run the globe through their manipulation of the media and the all-powerful Rotary International. I may therefore risk putting myself out on a limb in the media community saying this, but I'm afraid I find the ambition to wipe Israel off the map repellent, the worship of death indefensible and efforts made to halt Hamas's uncompromising campaign of terror completely understandable. I can no more mourn Sheikh Yassin's death, in all conscience, than a Briton could have shed an honest tear for Reinhard Heydrich in 1942.
But what will the consequences of Israel's actions be? Might this assassination lead to a backlash that could be avoided? It is a question that should weigh heavily on Israel's Government, and on all of us who have a moral stake in fighting fundamentalist terror.
I'm inclined to agree with the view Jack Straw outlined in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. The Foreign Secretary argued that weakness in the face of fundamentalist outrages was more provocative than a strong counter-attack. Referring to al-Qaeda's activities throughout the 1990s he said, "the evidence was very clear that Osama bin Laden was becoming increasingly emboldened by the lack of reaction". Mr Straw now concludes that "we should have hit al-Qaeda sooner".
The evidence from the Middle East reinforces the point. Whenever Israel has been perceived as irresolute, as when Ehud Barak withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, the terrorists have drawn the conclusion that their violence is working. Perceived Israeli weakness led to an escalation of Palestinian violence, with Yassir Arafat's launch of the second intifada a few months later.
Now that Ariel Sharon is withdrawing forces from the Gaza Strip, the risk is that a similar conclusion, that Israel is weakening and violence is working, will be drawn. In such circumstances the best means of ensuring that terrorists do not feel emboldened is to make sure that those who organise the terror campaigns lose by their actions.
And that prompts a final question. What would have been more likely to hearten Heydrich's comrades in arms at his funeral in June 1942? International condemnation of reckless British action and a global demand that Winston Churchill resume talks to tackle Germany's longstanding grievances? Or an implacable commitment to fight democracy's enemies until those bent on genocide laid down their arms?