Israel Hasn’t Won or Lost the Gaza War — But Now Hopes to Kill Top Hamas Leaders: Victory?

After the latest ceasefire broke down — with Hamas and Israel both finding it pointless to keep negotiating in Cairo — Israel is attempting “shock and awe” tactics: first, with an airstrike that flattened an apartment building and aimed to kill Hamas’s military chief. Then came another airstrike, with impressive precision, destroying a house in which three senior military men of Hamas were meeting — and all three were killed.

On Sunday (24 August) word came that an Israeli missile destroyed a car driven by Hamas’s top finance official. But do targeted assassinations help, in the long run?

[Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the new, updated history of Israel’s intelligence agencies Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, wrote this article for Friday’s Jerusalem Post newspaper.]

Dead or alive? Was Muhammad Deif, legendary chief of the Izzedin Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, eliminated in a targeted killing by Israel – or did he survive the attack?

Israelis and Palestinians have been asking that question since the early hours of Wednesday morning, when reports of an attempted assassination first surfaced. The assumption is that he was killed or gravely wounded, but more than 48 hours later, we remain in the dark.

Hamas’s websites and spokesmen declared Deif alive and kicking. Some of them even made a mockery of what they described as yet another Israeli failure to assassinate him.

Israel's air force: assassination weapons

Israel’s air force: assassination weapons

Indeed, like a cat with nine lives, Deif has survived at least four attempts by Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the military to kill him.

Israeli officials added to the aura of mystery by remaining ambiguous. They hinted he was most probably killed but weren’t sure, and they did not wish to commit themselves to a statement they would regret.

Let’s assume for a moment that Deif was killed in the attack: What would the implications and ramifications of such a hit be?

Already severely disabled due to earlier attacks, Deif had become in recent years more of an “honorary” commander of the military wing . Nevertheless, he was involved in the major strategic military decisions taken by the movement – including transforming Hamas into a semi-military organization with battalions and brigades (with two of its six brigade commanders killed in a joint Shin Bet-Israel Air Force operation this week after Deif was hit). Deif was also involved in the tunnel and rocket programs.

Thus, killing him could be a tactical gain for Israel, a boost to Israel’s morale during the frustrating Gaza war, and a psychological blow for Hamas.

The Gaza war has become more about public relations, images, and spin than about success in the battlefield. Every side aspires for an Iwo Jima-style “victory photo” – and killing Deif could provide that image for Israel.

There is a downside, however: If Deif managed to survive a fifth Israeli attempt on his life, it will elevate his godlike status not just within Hamas, but among the Palestinian constituency everywhere.

The larger question here is whether Israel’s assassination policy is paying off.

For decades, Israeli intelligence chiefs have debated the wisdom and effectiveness of the policy – a debate that is less of a moral or ethical deliberation, but a more practical one.

David Kimche (1928-2010), photo by

David Kimche (1928-2010), photo by

The late David Kimche, a senior Mossad operative, told me more than a decade ago that he and his colleagues had discussed many times whether the organization should be involved in assassinations and targeted killings. Some argue against it, claiming that the Mossad is not a Murder, Inc., and killing terrorist leaders is counterproductive.

A quick reminder: Less than two years ago, Israel’s previous campaign in Gaza opened with the killing of Ahmed Jabari, then the operations chief of Hamas’s military wing, as Deif was still recuperating from his Israeli-inflicted wounds. Quickly enough, Hamas recovered from the loss of Jabari and replaced him with a new commander, Marwan Issa, who today is still the military wing’s acting chief.

There are many other examples, the most blatant being the 1992 assassination of Hezbollah secretary-general Abbas Moussawi; he was replaced by a more skillful leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

The long history of Israel’s war against terrorist leaders and military operatives reads like the final chapter of the Passover Seder: one killing leads to a new leader, who is then killed, followed by a new leader, and so forth.

But on the other hand, does a country fighting terrorism have a choice? The nature of asymmetrical struggle between a state and a terror group is that it is an ongoing battle – a kind of war of attrition with no knockout blow possible.

Israel – and for that matter, any other nation in a similar situation – doesn’t have the luxury of projecting an image of weakness and thus has to hit, retaliate, and assassinate the enemy’s operatives.

This is not in order to take revenge, but as a step to disrupt future plots and eliminate the other side’s most capable leaders and commanders.

Israel’s intelligence and security apparatus has for years tried to devise a doctrine detailing when and whom to target, based on how useful the termination would be. There are no textbook answers, only general observations.

Killing a leader of a small group – a nearly one-man show – can paralyze that organization. But when it comes to larger terrorist groups well-rooted in the community, sooner or later a new – sometimes even more talented and daring – chief will turn up.

Regardless of whether Deif is dead or alive, it will not change the reality of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Both sides need an exit strategy, a long-term agreement to end the violence. For that to happen, they must swallow their pride and agree to a compromise.

August 24, 2014

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