Since September 2000, when the current Israeli-Palestinian hostilities erupted, Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, has engineered 52 suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, claiming the lives of hundreds and wounding thousands. Last Sunday, an Israeli army helicopter fired the missiles that ended the life of its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, together with three bodyguards and five bystanders.

On any reasonable accounting, Yassin's death is a success for the Israelis in combating those deploying indiscriminate murder of civilians that is all of a piece with the Madrid bombings that claimed the lives of 200 more than a week earlier.

How has the United States and the world responded to this success? With an ambiguity and incoherence that is standard in this conflict.

The White House found it "deeply troubling." The State Department promptly equalized Israel and Hamas, issuing a statement calling for "maximum restraint" from "all sides." Spokesman Richard Boucher, as so often, affirmed Israel's right to self-defense (something that never needs affirmation in any comparable context) but immediately exempted from inclusion in this category the latest Israeli action on which he was being queried.

The reaction in Europe was more unbuttoned. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman described it as a "setback," before adding that it "goes without saying that the prime minister also condemns today's killing." EU foreign ministers issued a statement condemning Yassin's killing as "extra-judicial." And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan "condemned" what he termed an "assassination."

This was only marginally removed from the Palestinian reaction: Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia described the killing as a "crime." Abu Qusai, commander of Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the Gaza Strip, warned rather redundantly that "every Israeli will be a target for the militants."

Missile strikes, like most military acts, are inherently risky, often claiming the innocent as well as the guilty. As a general rule, the less surgical the strike, the wider the concern expressed over methods. Here, however, the rules are actually different. Whatever measures Israel adopted – roadblocks, curfews, withholding revenues, returning fire, missile strikes, targeting individual terrorists, incursions on the ground – all produced condemnation in the past.

In short, various governments do not dispute Israel's right to self-defense in principle – merely in practice.

That this is not how the rules work elsewhere is beyond doubt. Thus, when an American warplane bombed a Baghdad restaurant in April 2003, missing all intended targets, including Saddam Hussein, but claiming 14 innocent lives, there was no suggestion from the European Union that the bombing was "extra-judicial" or, that had it succeeded, it would have amounted to an "assassination." Such language has little place in armed conflict.

The surreal quality of official statements on Israeli actions derives from many things – hypocrisy, expediency and spurious even-handedness – but above all from the fiction that Israel is engaged in something other than a war. A bogus state of peace and endlessly incipient negotiations supply the rationale that regards a counter-terrorist success as "deeply troubling" and "extra-judicial."

The reasons for the near-universal embrace of this fiction could fill books but boil down to this: Most of Israel's neighbors either seek Israel's demise or would be pleased to see it occur. Most people outside the region would prefer not to know this. They choose to proceed on the basis that the terrorists and the hateful attitudes that animate them are the workings of an unrepresentative fringe. No amount of polling of Palestinians, over however long a period, will convince them otherwise.

It is more agreeable to believe that the conflict is presently soluble and that the onus is thus on Israel as the stronger party to make concessions, not fight. In Europe especially, where attitudes towards Jewry are, to say the least, complex, a reiteration of Israeli wrongdoing also acts as valve for pent-up guilt over the Holocaust. Diplomatically, too, it is a tempting maneuver to purchase goodwill by agreeing with Arab governments harboring restive populations and sending increasing numbers of immigrants to the continent. Prejudice and fear go hand in glove.

A similar process of denial is at work in the opposition to the wider war on terror from the anti-American left, which believes that Islamist terrorism originates in reasonable claims amenable to negotiations, not non-negotiable ambitions obtainable purely by force.

Both processes of denial speak of an inchoate decadence, an inability to see things as they are for fear of upsetting cherished illusions. It is far from sensible, and it makes for poor analysis. But it has its purposes.

Daniel Mandel is a Middle East analyst based in Philadelphia and a fellow in history at Melbourne University.