Forgive me if I don’t shed the same tears for Yehiya Abiya and Ahmed Jabari as I did for Yitzhak Rabin. The IDF and the Shin Bet crossed two high profile names off their hit-lists, having assassinated Hamas’ top military and rocket commanders in the days since Operation Pillar of Defense began on Wednesday. Many in the Knesset and Defense establishment have been keen to kill Jabari ever since he personally escorted Gilad Schalit to the Egyptian border last year. But there were other obvious reasons to kill him as well. As the top commander of Hamas’ Izzadin al-Qassam brigades, Israel held Jabari personally accountable for all acts of terror originating from Gaza. The same goes for Abiya, who’s rockets have been harassing Israel’s residents in the South ever since the ill-fated withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. They died appropriately, and with poetry. A button pushed and a missile fired. But while there is still talk and analysis between invasion and diplomacy, it should be stated that the real dividends will come from Israel’s continuation of these targeted killings of Hamas’ senior commanders.
In a best case scenario, the scores of correspondents flocking to the Erez crossing hoping to catch a ride into Gaza on the back of a Merkava with one of the 75,000 reservists called up, never get that chance. Instead of reports about invasion, diplomatic fallout, and civilian casualty, I hope we see the New York Times and the Guardian’s pages fill up with obituaries of the who’s who of Gaza’s terror society. Israel is making it clear. They will do whatever it takes to bring the rocket fire to a halt, and that message is starting to resonate. The Prime Minster has been working the phones, and the army has been working the twitter feeds. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the IDF Spokesman division tweeted. Many high profile Hamas leaders have since gone underground, so presumably they’ve gotten the message. Netanyahu and Barak have been talking very publicly that they will be headhunting Hamas’ senior leaders. Bogie Ya’alon and Shaul Mofaz too, both former army Chiefs of Staff and both hoping to occupy the top two seats in Government come January, endorsed the decision to use assassination as the means to deal with Hamas. Israel’s game of whack-a-mole is back on.
Assassination is an effective counter-punchers strategy. It is clean and efficient, and inflicts a tremendous disturbance to the terrorist infrastructure. A UN report on assassination, defined as the “premeditated acts of lethal force employed by states in times of peace, or during armed conflict to eliminate specific individuals outside their custody,” made note of Israel’s preference of targeted killings in the past, (the report also cited Turkey as the country after the US and Israel to use assassination with the most frequency. Incidentally, the Turks were among the first to condemn Israel.) opined that it is a questionable method and not popular around the world. While the word assassination tends to evoke images of unscrupulous and cold-blooded killers fleeing the scene in a John Le Carre novel, Israeli officials made no attempts to paint a rosier picture of the decision to sanction the killing of Hamas leaders. Ambassador Michael Oren insisted that Israel has nothing to be ashamed about, and nothing to apologize for. “This is our right. Ahmed Jabari killed dozens and dozens of Israelis.” Assassination as both a from of justice and deterrence. Jabari’s story almost defines the phrase rising out of the ashes. He took over operational command after a hellfire missile nearly killed his predecessor Mohammed Dief. Although he survived, Dief never picked up his Kalishnakov again.
By going after the top tier of Hamas’ armed wing, Israel will systematically remove all of those who are capable of mounting attacks against it. Breaking it down into component parts shows why it such an effective strategy. In the case of Hamas, a radical Islamist movement which has espoused the ideas of death and martyrdom, there is a fear that assassinations will only serve to galvanize those you are seeking to discourage. Such was the case of former Hamas leaders Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. When they were assassinated, there was plenty of jockeying within Hamas’ ranks as to who would pick up the mantle of occupation and resistance. But this is slightly misleading. The leader of Hamas is a largely symbolic role with a lot of prestige. When it comes to actual field commanders like Jabari or Abiya, or most notably Hezbollah’s former mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, it’s been difficult finding willing volunteers eager enough to slide into the top spot on Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen’s holiday wish list. The know-how and charisma of these figures are nearly impossible to replace. Since Mughniyeh’s assassination in Damascus in 2008, the Lebanese terror group has been plotting its revenge unsuccessfully, having been thwarted trying to attack Israeli assets in Thailand, Cyprus and India just this year alone. But despite the sabre-rattling and ostentatious talk of martyrdom, these guys don’t really want to die all too quickly. And until recently, they have felt unnaturally safe while firing rockets at population centers from the other side of the border without fear of reprisal to them.
Most effectively, assassination is a psychological weapon. For the enemy it is demoralizing. You don’t know when the Mossad might get the drop on you in your hotel room, or sit down next to you on a train speeding past Kiev. It exaggerates your feelings of vulnerability and exposure, and when planned right, will trigger a crisis within the enemy ranks. Which is why this is the most opportune time in nearly a decade, for Israel to strike. For a year now, Hamas has been reeling and in complete disarray. Their base of operations in Syria is no longer available to them, and most of the terror bases around them in Gaza are going up in smoke. Syrian aid has stopped, and Iranian resupply lines have been greatly reduced since the army demonstrated its determination in the skies over Sudan. With Khaled Meshal taking a voluntary and well timed retirement, the infighting over succession will only start to get worse. Especially if the short list continues to get smaller and smaller thanks to the IDF. Going forward, the policy should be clear. Keep Hamas in the cross-hairs.