Israel knows that airstrikes alone cannot help it to win its war against Hamas. To handicap its enemy, the Israeli Defense Forces must kill or capture the group’s leaders, both in Gaza — where they are hiding out in intricate tunnel complexes — and elsewhere, in other countries in the Middle East, including Qatar. But the cost of such dangerous operations will be high — and could easily backfire.
For now, the priority for Israel is targeting Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. On the hit list is Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza; Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades; and Deif’s second-in-command, Marwan Issa. Over the weekend, the IDF has been bombing Khan Yunis, a city on southern Gaza where these Hamas leaders are thought to be. Israel’s soldiers will aim to make inroads into the city on foot to kill, or capture, these men and to rescue hostages.
Hamas’s leaders inside Gaza aren’t the only target
The Israeli government views the targeted killing or capturing of Hamas’s leaders as essential for achieving its main goal: to destroy Hamas. Israel is well known for carrying out such missions. In Operation Wrath of God, Israel targeted the Palestinian terrorists involved in the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israeli armed forces and intelligence services have killed terrorists involved in planning or implementing attacks in Israel, or about to commit an attack. They also assassinated leaders and senior commanders of various terror organizations, including the founders of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, both killed in 2004.
Hamas’s leaders inside Gaza aren’t the only target. Israel also reportedly has plans to assassinate the group’s senior officials, who reside in Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar. Such operations are notoriously difficult, especially when carried out in hostile states. A past attempt by the Israeli Mossad to kill Hamas’s leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Jordan in 1997, ended in failure and brought a major diplomatic crisis with Jordan, with whom Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Jordan’s King Hussein saw it as an act of humiliation and disrespect by Israel. Israel was made to provide an antidote to the poison with which Mashaal was sprayed, to avoid any harm coming to the Mossad agents who were captured by Jordan. The upside was that Jordan expelled Mashaal and other Hamas terrorists and has not allowed the organization to operate in Jordan ever since.
There is another risk to carrying out operations against Hamas officials living outside Gaza: negotiations could be undermined, risking the lives of hostages. Qatar, where Mashaal — who is Israel’s number one target outside of Gaza — resides, has played a crucial role in securing the release of hostages. Israel doesn’t want to risk relations with the Qataris at this point, despite their long-term support and funding of Hamas. For now, Mashaal is safe, but that won’t always be the case.
Considering the trauma and fear inflicted by the atrocious October 7 attacks, the policy of targeted killings will be popular among Israelis. The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, Ronen Bar, reportedly said that Israel is “determined” to eliminate Hamas everywhere — in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Turkey, Qatar. “This is our Munich,” he said, adding that it may take several years to carry out these operations, but that they will get done.
Israel should be realistic about what such killings will achieve. Apart from damaging Israel’s diplomatic relations with countries where assassinations take place (particularly if the wrong person was killed, as happened in Norway in 1973), some have brought on revenge attacks that resulted in civilian deaths — as happened following the assassination of the former leader of Hezbollah, Abbas al-Musawi in 1992. In retaliation, the Islamic Jihad attacked the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing twenty-nine Israelis and Argentinians. Another attack, on a building belonging to the Jewish community, also in Buenos Aires, killed eighty-five people. What’s more, al-Musawi has been replaced by Hassan Nasrallah, under whose leadership Hezbollah has transformed from a minor terror organization to a powerful paramilitary group that poses a substantial threat to Israel.
Such unintended consequences, and doubts about the effectiveness of killing Hamas’s leaders outside of Gaza, mean that not everyone within the Israeli establishment support these dangerous operations. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi is one of the prominent voices warning that eliminating opponents in this way is ill-advised. As Ronen Bergman put his book Rise and Kill First about Israel’s targeted assassinations, killing Israel’s enemies might result in “tactical success, but also disastrous strategic failures.”
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.