Over the past few days, Israeli leaders have issued assassination threats to Hamas leaders, following the ongoing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip towards southern Israeli settlements. This has coincided with the heated and tense Israeli General Election campaign, with the threats making headlines.
Are Israel’s threats against Hamas leaders serious or just election rhetoric? How are they being received? Is Hamas taking extra security measure? An assassination before the election will boost the right-wing’s chances, but at what cost; how would Hamas respond?
Aside from the threats made in the wake of rockets being fired, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz has also threatened to target Hamas leaders during the next war on Gaza. There may come a moment when Israel decides to act comprehensively, he claimed, and there will be no immunity for political leaders. He added that Israel would not tolerate unrest in the (occupied) Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Former General Benny Gantz, meanwhile, is the leader of the opposition Blue and White bloc. He threatened Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, directly, reminding him of the fate of Ahmad Al-Ja’bari, the former Hamas military commander who was killed by Israel in 2012, thus warning him of a similar fate.
Likewise, Oren Hazan MK of the right-wing Likud said that the response to Palestinian attacks should be the targeting of Hamas leaders in Gaza, otherwise, Israel will “continue to bury its children” in the West Bank.
Culture Minister Miri Regev joined in with the threats. The time has come, she insisted, to target the “head of the snake” and attack Hamas leaders, so that they know that the rules of the game have changed. When their heads are on the line, she said, and assassinations reach their homes, Israel will succeed in restoring its deterrence power.
Such assassinations within and beyond the borders of historic Palestine illustrate the bloody and violent history of the Israeli army. This is not a new policy; Israel has a long record of killing its political opponents, including UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in September 1948 and quadriplegic Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004. Palestinians and Arabs still remember the names of the politicians, scientists, intellectuals and resistance fighters who were the victims of this violent policy over the years. Nevertheless, the Israeli army claims that its assassination policy meets the state’s security needs, and considers it to be the most effective way to stop “ticking time bombs”.
Scrutiny of assassinations in recent years provides details of the planning, preparation and execution of the killings. Once the list of potential targets is compiled, Israel’s security agencies prepare detailed dossiers on each person, noting regular movements and places of residence, work and worship. Sheikh Yassin, remember, was blown up by a missile as he left his local mosque in his wheelchair.
Several security and military agencies are involved in the process, led by the main internal security agency, Shabak (also known as Shin Bet). It relies on a network of agents in Palestine, then on military intelligence, which uses the most advanced technology in gathering raw data. An operations room is formed under the leadership of the Chief of Staff and supervised by the Defence Minister, who reports to the Prime Minister. It is the latter who makes the final decision of who is to be assassinated, and how.
The Israeli intelligence services rely a lot on the information obtained by agents on the ground. They are tasked with gathering information on every aspect of the target’s life, including their homes and the number of rooms and their layout; the car that is used; the roads the target drives on; his hours of work; and where he works. Surveillance is then left to modern technology, including drones, which allows security personnel to listen in to communication devices, especially mobile phones.
Israel claims that the assassination of Hamas leaders achieves five main objectives: disrupting the military leadership system; hindering at least part of planned operations; forcing Hamas officials to go into hiding, making it difficult for them to plan and execute attacks; promoting Israel’s own retaliation; boosting the morale of the Israeli public.
However, Hamas and the other resistance factions have proved that Israeli assassinations do not weaken or frighten them; nor have they turned the people against the resistance. This is because Israel’s commitment to its old-new policy, which is based on the theory of pressuring the Palestinian people to put pressure on Palestinian resistance groups to stop their attacks, has actually backfired. Instead, the merciless assassinations generally encourage resistance rather than prevent it.
Israeli military analyst Amir Bar Shalom has said that some Israeli generals are disappointed about an assassination policy being revived, because attempts to kill Hamas leaders lead to extra security measure being taken and, contrary to what the politicians claim, more armed operations against Israel. Killing Hamas leaders only leads to more losses for Israel and provides the movement with reasons to increase resistance attacks.
The prevailing thought among Israel’s security and military institutions, therefore, is that a return to assassinations will complicate matters even more. What worked during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) may not work today.
Israeli talk of the assassination policy has increased greatly recently and is linked to the General Election campaign. However, assassinations are no longer solely in Israel’s hands. Gaza has changed and the situation is different to what it was in previous years and decades. There are major doubts about whether Israel’s assassinations will preserve its security or actually do more harm than good.
Supposedly “rational” Israelis do not hesitate to discuss the hypothetical success of assassinating two or three Hamas leaders from the movement’s military wing. However, the short-term losses will be followed by, for example, Ben Gurion Airport being showered with missiles. There is also a possibility that a full-scale war will ensue, which is the worst possible scenario.
Furthermore, assassinating Hamas leaders will not eradicate the Palestinian resistance movements. Claims to the contrary are intended only to placate worried Israeli citizens who are concerned about the country’s security. If popular leaders are killed by Israel, then hatred and fear will eliminate any remaining possibility of a successful political process in the hunt for peace and justice, with “eye for an eye” revenge killings which will, inevitably, portray the State of Israel as nothing more than a mafia gang intent on having the last word in such matters.
Israeli writer, Ron Adlist has questioned what Israel would gain from digging thousands of graves for those it will kill in secret operations. There is a lot of uncertainty about outcomes if the threatened assassinations of Hamas leaders goes ahead. What is certain, though, is that they will not crush the aspirations of the Palestinian people for independence and freedom; killing more Palestinians has never done this. Assassinations are merely a national sedative for Israeli citizens, not a real alternative to dialogue without preconditions.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.