The summit was scheduled for 4 o’clock. By 2 pm, the surveillance drones were already up in the air, silently patrolling the skies, their electronic eyes capturing every detail below.
A once-in-a-lifetime mistake was about to be made. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was about to be missed.
Gaza. 2003. Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, calls an emergency meeting of Hamas’s top commanders to discuss imminent Hamas terror operations. Aside from Yassin, participants include Mohammed Deif, the head of Hama’s terror operations, Ahmed Al-Jabari, Deif’s second in command, Ahmed Ghandour, commander of the North Gaza Brigade, Adnan al-Ghoul, considered the founder of Hamas’s rockets and weapons industry, and a plethora of other senior political figures and military generals. It was a gathering that wouldn’t be out of place in the lair of Satan himself. All senior Hamas leadership together in the same room, at the same time. A once-in-a-lifetime mistake.
News of the summit reached Shin Bet and IDF Intelligence, who couldn’t believe their good fortunes. Here was a chance for an operation with real, lasting impact: Hitting Hamas and crippling it and its ability to launch terror operations. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The meeting was supposed to take place on the third floor of a 3-story building. The Israeli Air Force launched an F-16 to circle the building, armed with a one-ton bomb. Enough explosive power to level the entire building and neutralize all of Hamas’s top leadership.
As the clock ticked towards 4 pm and the air was buzzing with anticipation, IDF and Shin Bet operatives in the command center watched footage from the drones and noticed all of the participants arriving. Nobody was missing; all of Hama’s leadership assembled, and all entered the building. The tension built, and success seemed imminent. If they were allowed to drink on duty, that is likely the point where champagne bottles would have been taken out of the fridge.
Moments before the go-ahead order was supposed to be given to the F-16 pilots, Moshe Ya’alon, then IDF’s Chief of the General Staff, urged Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister, to cancel the operation. Ya’alon was concerned about collateral damage from neighboring buildings, especially given Israel’s elimination in the previous year of Salah Shehade, Deif’s predecessor, which resulted in the death of 14 Palestinians. In a tense discussion between Sharon, Ya’alon, and the heads of Shin Bet and IDF Intelligence, with time running out, a compromise was reached: Instead of dropping the one-ton bomb to level the entire building, the IDF would drop a quarter-ton bomb that was supposed to destroy the third floor, where the meeting was to take place, without damaging any of the neighboring buildings.
The go-ahead order was given. The F-16 pilot pressed the button. The bomb was dropped. The third story was completely destroyed. The operation failed.
It turns out that Yassin’s electric wheelchair was too cumbersome to carry up to the third floor, and the terror group decided to hold the meeting on the first floor. In the video coming from the drone, Shin Bet and IDF commanders frustratingly watched all of Hamas’s leadership exit the building unharmed, shake the dust off their clothes, and scatter to the wind.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A once-in-a-lifetime mistake. A once-in-a-lifetime failure.
Once in a lifetime. Until 20 years later. Until today.
Israel must not repeat its mistake of 20 years ago, allowing short-term thinking to have long-term, catastrophic costs. Of the two stated goals of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza – toppling Hamas and bringing the hostages home – the second must not come at the expense of the first. Simply put, neglecting the top priority and keeping Hamas in power ensures future casualties and future hostages in a continuation of this vicious cycle of violence.
How many lives – Israeli and Palestinian alike – would have been saved had the terror masterminds in that fateful 2003 summit been eliminated? How many lives – Israeli and Palestinian alike – will be lost in the coming years if Hamas is allowed to continue ruling Gaza?
The current ceasefire deal is good mostly for Hamas and its main puppet master, Iran. It gifts Hamas precious time to rearm and regroup, stopping the fighting at a critical time when Hamas is on its back foot. Meanwhile, it allows Hamas to present itself as a humanitarian organization, receiving international goodwill that will make resuming Israel’s ground operations more difficult.
The duty of ensuring the hostages’ return to Israel is a moral and humane one. It should be the goal not only of every Israeli but also of every compassionate human on this earth. Those hostages are babies, children, elderly, and innocent men and women who were kidnapped under gunpoint from their homes, often after having watched their family members slaughtered by Hamas terrorists. Every day they spend in Hamas’s captivity feels like years to their loved ones, to the Israeli people, and to the many around the world who sympathize with their pain. And that’s before mentioning the horrid experience for the hostages themselves, jailed underground and unsure about their fate. But unspeakable as it may be, the release of the hostages cannot be done with disregard to the cost. A lesson Israel should have learned all too well following 2011’s infamous Shalit Deal, in which Israel released over a thousand terrorists – including Yahya Sinwar, the mastermind behind the massacre.
True leadership demands navigating through tough and seemingly impossible decisions. If this deal – a deal that still leaves about 200 hostages in captivity – prevents Operation Swords of Iron from achieving its primary goal of eliminating Hamas or mortally crippling its militaristic, terror capabilities, then the cost is just too high and it was all for naught. The reign of terror, the barrages of rockets fired on Israeli schools and hospitals, and the armed incursions out of Gaza will continue. Worse, a repeat of Black Saturday’s massacre is not a question of if, but of when. In this region of the world, history tends to repeat in short intervals.
Israel must swiftly resume its ground operations following this ill-conceived ceasefire, and stop only once it has ensured that Hamas has ceased to be a threat to Israel and innocent Gazans alike. Otherwise, Israel is paying for the current hostages with the tears of future ones and their families, and the blood of the thousands of casualties to surely come if Hamas and its reign of terror are not eliminated. And that is not a deal worth making.
The outcome of Operation Swords of Iron must be the eradication of Hamas.
If not, we may as well start coming up with the name of the next operation.