As Israel now focuses its assault on southern Gaza, the net is closing on Hamas’s leaders. Foreign Editor David Pratt examines their likely fate and the controversial issue of Israel’s targeted assassinations
If the language of Israel’s war cabinet is anything to go by, then the die is cast for the leaders of Hamas. Speaking during a television address on November 22, as Israel’s military onslaught in Gaza ramped up, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant made it ominously clear that the Hamas men were “marked for death”.
In a pointed reference aimed also at those Hamas leaders already in exile, Gallant indicated that Israel’s retribution would be wide ranging and potentially transnational.
The “struggle”, he said, “is worldwide … both the terrorists in Gaza and those who fly in expensive planes”.
As anyone familiar with Israel’s track record on what have been described by some as “targeted assassinations” and by others as “unlawful killings” will recognise, Gallant’s words are far from empty rhetoric.
Just to underline that very point and disregarding the consternation of some Israeli officials who prefer to keep such intentions either in the dark or at least ambiguous, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the same address, confirmed that the order to target the Hamas leadership was already in place.
“I have instructed the Mossad to act against the heads of Hamas wherever they are,” he said, referring to Israel’s foreign-intelligence service.
Israel’s targeted assassinations, like those of other nations, have always be open to question in terms of their effectiveness and are viewed in some quarters as little more than a desire for vengeance rather than serving any useful strategic long-term purpose. Leaders, after all, are replaceable and there is the obvious fact too that such killings carried out abroad violate international law, running the risk of serious repercussions from those countries angered by foreign assassins operating clandestinely on their sovereign territory.
But this has rarely deterred Israel, which is far from alone these days in carrying out what has become an increasingly common and inflammatory facet of today’s troubled world.
The murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist activist who was shot in Canada in June and caused an explosive diplomatic row between Canada and India, is perhaps the most prominent recent case of the fallout from targeted assassination.
Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza speaks during an iftar dinner of Hamas during holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City
In terms of Israel itself, however, as Yossi Melman, intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for the daily Haaretz newspaper recently highlighted, the country has a long-established record of such killings.
Even before Israel was founded in 1948, Jewish militants killed European diplomats who were involved in the British administration of Mandatory Palestine.
By 1956, targeted assassinations were part of Israeli strategy when Unit 154 (today Unit 504) of Israeli army intelligence, which ran agents on Israel’s borders, sent a package bomb into Gaza that killed Colonel Mustafa Hafez, an Egyptian intelligence officer who dispatched armed Arab cells into Israel.
In later years, Israel’s overseas intelligence service, Mossad, sometimes worked much further afield such as in the 1960s when in Montevideo, Uruguay, one of its cells assassinated Herberts Cukurs, a Nazi war criminal who was known as the “Butcher of Riga”.
Back in the summer of 1981 while in Tel Aviv, I interviewed another former Mossad operative who commanded the Nazi-hunting team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina.
By then, Rafael “Rafi” Eitan was an elderly man, small, stocky, bespectacled and partially deaf from an old wound received during Israel’s 1948 war of independence.
I well recall at the time thinking how difficult it was to associate the figure sitting before me with his near-legendary reputation within the Mossad as a reputed assassin. “I had him here, this close to me, with a gun at his head,” recalled Eitan, holding up his hand a few inches from his face as he described having Eichmann as a prisoner.
“I could have killed him but I was under orders to bring him back alive,” Eitan recounted with a shrug that suggested a certain disappointment at being deprived of the opportunity to deliver the coup de grace to Eichmann there and then.
Eitan would also later play an important role in the assassinations of the Palestinian gunmen who carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The controversial events of that time would go on to be depicted in the 2005 film Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Later still, in 2010, Eitan, in a telling interview with Haaretz, is credited with saying that “in principle, when there is a war on terror you conduct it without principles …you simply fight it”.
Today that same uncompromising eye-for-an-eye response appears to be the modus operandi laid out by Netanyahu and his war cabinet to deal with the current senior Hamas leadership and others within the group’s ranks.
Not since the days of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising – between 2002/05 – has it been so likely to see an uptick of Israel’s targeted assassination policy as right now.
Back then under Avi Dichter, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, the tactic became widely used. Hundreds of Hamas officials and other Palestinian militants were assassinated by a variety of methods, using the latest technologies including drones.
A FEW years prior to this, in 1997, Netanyahu, during his first term in office, displayed his own willingness to engage a policy of targeted killing when he ordered Mossad to carry out what became a botched attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Mishal in Jordan.
It was after Mossad agents entered Jordan with forged Canadian passports that Mishal was injected with a toxic substance while walking along a street.
Jordanian authorities, however, discovered the assassination attempt and arrested two Mossad members.
The late King Hussein of Jordan then asked Israel’s PM for the antidote for the substance Mishal was injected with, and facing pressure from then-US president Bill Clinton, Netanyahu provided the antidote after initially rejecting the request.
Today, Mishal remains one of those that Israel might seek to target alongside other Hamas chiefs outside of Gaza. These would also likely include Ismail Haniyeh, who is widely considered as Hamas’s overall leader and has lived in Qatar for the past several years. But that Qatar residency creates real problems for the Israelis should they take the high-risk option of striking Haniyeh or other Hamas leaders in the Gulf state – but more on that shortly.
Meanwhile, actually inside Gaza itself on the ground, Israel will be focusing on Hamas’s leader there, Yahya Sinwar. His close associates Mohammed Deif, who leads the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of the Hamas movement, and Marwan Issa, or the shadow man and Deif’s deputy commander-in-chief, are top of Israel’s target list.
All this, of course, is based on the assumption that the three men and other senior Hamas figures in Gaza have not already been spirited off through one of the group’s labyrinth of tunnels over the border into Egypt and then on elsewhere.
In terms of the threat posed by thousands of low-level Hamas fighters from Gaza, Israel is said to be considering whether it could forcibly expel them from Gaza in a way similar to the US-brokered deal that allowed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and thousands of fighters to flee Beirut during Israel’s 1982 siege of the Lebanese capital.
In terms of Hamas’s leaders, though, Israel recognises that everything possible will be done to help then evade capture or death. To that end, the Gaza leadership remains a priority target as reflected on a poster said to hang on the wall of the Israeli defence ministry that features dozens of Hamas commanders with lines drawn across the faces of those who have already been eliminated.
Among these are several senior officials based in Gaza who have been killed by Israeli strikes since October 7.
On October 10, Hamas announced the deaths of Zakaria Abu Maamar and Jawad Abu Shammala, two members of its political office. Maamar led the bureau’s economic department and Shammala was in charge of co-ordinating with other Palestinian factions as head of the national relations department.
On October 14, Merad Abu Merad and Ali Qadi were reportedly killed in air strikes. Both Hamas commanders, Merad was the head of Hamas’s aerial system and said to be responsible for a significant part of the deadly offensive on October 7.
Qadi was a commander in Hamas’s Nukhba (“Elite”) commando unit, which led the attack on Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya
Nofal taken out
Another key figure to have been killed is Ayman Nofal, a member of the higher military council of the al-Qassam Brigades in charge of the Central Gaza area.
It was Nofal who, while detained in Egypt in February 2011, took advantage of the uprising against president Hosni Mubarak to escape from prison and reach the Gaza Strip through a smuggling tunnel.
Today, what Israeli officials fear is a reversal of that journey whereby those still at large evade capture by using the same tunnels. As Israeli forces now concentrate their assault on southern Gaza and especially the city of Khan Younis, they will hope to seal off such means of evading capture or being killed.
On Friday, the Israeli army dropped leaflets on the city asking residents of Khan Younis to evacuate as they believe that those senior military members of Hamas still at large are in tunnels in the city as Israeli forces move to root them out.
But what if top figures like Sinwar, Deif and Issa have already gone and turn up elsewhere in another country? Will Israel follow through with Netanyahu’s stated order to Mossad to act against the heads of Hamas “wherever they are”?
This brings us back to the tricky issue of Qatar, a country that hosts Hamas leaders and where Mossad officials are conducting negotiations over hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
According to sources cited recently by French journalist George Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, Netanyahu had pledged to Qatar that Israel would not act against the leaders of Hamas living in Qatar.
According to Le Figaro, Qatar received assurances from Israel that the Mossad would not carry out assassinations on its soil, and that “Doha presented its pre-condition to Israel a few weeks ago, before assuming its role as a mediator in the abductee issue”.
But things, its seems, are not as clear-cut, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The Israeli newspaper cites a spokesman for the prime minister’s office denying the Le Figaro report, saying “the opposite was true, and referring to Netanyahu’s public instruction to the Mossad that all Hamas leaders are on notice for potential assassination”.
AS the Jerusalem Post points out, Netanyahu’s order to the Mossad, made publicly, was perhaps tough talking aimed at a domestic Israeli audience while at the same time threatening enough to make the Hamas leadership more ready to agree to a hostage deal.
Or to put this another way as the Jerusalem Post states, “the promise to Qatar, assuming it is true, was probably the price of doing business for hostages”.
But as time moves on and when the current fighting in Gaza ceases, the question is whether Israel will choose to target those Hamas leaders living in Qatar – promise or no promise to Doha.
The same could apply to Hamas officials in other countries like Turkey and Lebanon, and would mean that Israeli defence minister Gallant meant what he said during that address on November 22 about Hamas leaders, “living on borrowed time, all over the globe – they are all dead men”.
Historically Mossad has shown its capacity for global reach when it comes to “hits” on Israel’s enemies and as the Jerusalem Post sharply pointed out, “even any promise to Qatar could have an expiration date”.
That said, not every senior Israeli security official, past and present, believes that targeted assassinations are useful or effective.
Many global human rights groups too rightly point out they are tantamount to “state murders” and certainly a violation of international law. Speaking recently in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the legendary former Mossad director Efraim Halevy summed up the view of many sceptics on the value of targeted assassinations, observing that killing Hamas leaders won’t eliminate the threat and only has the potential to instead inflame the groups’ followers and supporters, and bring new recruits into its ranks.
“Pursuing Hamas on a worldwide scale and trying to systematically remove all its leaders from this world is a desire to exact revenge, not a desire to achieve a strategic aim,” said Halevy.
Many share Halevy’s view and insist that the “old ways” of targeted killing don’t work and a new approach is needed to resolve the seemingly endless enmity between Israelis and Palestinians.
Whether the Israeli government under Netanyahu agrees, remains to be seen.
But if current words and deeds are any measure of where it stands, the signs are ominous to say the least.