On December 27, 2008, at 11:30 a.m., the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead with a massive bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Over 100 fighter jets and attack helicopters bombed more than 100 targets within just a few minutes. More than 200 Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, were reported killed.
That was not the only way the IDF Operations Directorate had planned for Cast Lead to commence. In the months preceding the operation, the top IDF brass had also considered starting with bombings aimed at killing some of Hamas’s top terror chiefs. The objective was the same – to shock the enemy into paralysis.
In the end, however, Israel had no choice but to launch the operation as it did, after it failed to obtain sufficient intelligence on the whereabouts of a significant number of Hamas’s senior leadership. It is unclear what difference such an opening salvo would ultimately have had on the anti-Hamas campaign and whether it would have brought a different outcome to the three-week operation, which ended with restored deterrence but also the Goldstone Report and unprecedented international criticism.
Either way, this story demonstrates the importance and significance
Israel places on the assassinations and targeted killings of terror
chiefs – shared also by the United States, which this week killed
al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout.
For Israel, this is primarily a derivative of the nature of the
conflicts it currently faces. Terror and guerrilla groups like
Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad usually lack a clear power base, the
elimination of which could deal a heavy blow to the organization. This
is in contrast to a nation-state, which has clear core targets such as
military bases, government institutions and critical state
infrastructure. As such, it is natural that Western militaries like
Israel and the US search for alternatives such as targeted killings and
The policy known as “targeted killings” was adopted by Israel in its war
against Palestinian terrorism following the outbreak of the second
intifada in 2000. While human rights organizations argued against the
policy and petitioned the High Court of Justice, the IDF claimed it was
effective on three different levels – preventing terror attacks,
creating deterrence and causing critical damage to terrorist
This was a policy change from when, after the 1972 Munich massacre of
Israeli athletes by Black September, Israel launched a reprisal – widely
known as operations Wrath of God and Spring of Youth – that included
the assassination of top PLO terrorists in Beirut and throughout Europe.
Those assassinations were done largely out of revenge, to make people
pay for what they had done in the past, not only for what they could do
in the future.
Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant, the former head of the IDF’s Southern Command,
spoke this week – for the first time publicly since the government
retracted its decision to appoint him chief of staff – about the
significance of assassinations in reference to bin Laden’s killing.
“Those who say that these operations don’t have an impact are mistaken,”
said Galant, who personally participated in such operations as a
longtime navy commando and later as head of the Southern Command. “The
liquidation of terror leaders prevents terror attacks and influences the
There are two categories of targets killed this way. The first is field
operatives, people like Hezbollah’s military commander Imad Mughniyeh,
reportedly killed by Israel in 2008 in Damascus, or Ali Mahmoud Mabhouh,
the Hamas weapons smuggler reportedly killed by Israel in Dubai in
Their deaths are believed to have dealt critical blows to their
respective organizations, to the point that over three years later,
Israel still believes Hezbollah has yet to find an appropriate
replacement for Mughniyeh.
Then there are symbolic figures whose assassination can have an effect
on a terrorist group. This was the case in 2004 with the assassination
of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound Hamas spiritual leader who
was killed by an IAF missile as he left a mosque in the Gaza Strip.
Bin Laden’s death resembles Yassin’s in this respect, since while he was
a leader at one point of a clear hierarchical organization, in the
years since the 9/11 attacks, he has served more in the position of
Since 9/11, al-Qaida has metastasized into a worldwide network of terror
cells that might share the same ideology and sometimes even technical
information, but do not necessarily work together. That is why the
deaths of Yassin and bin Laden do not paralyze their organizations, but
are more focused on helping to create a deterrent.
The death of bin Laden also overshadowed this week’s other big news
story for Israel – the reconciliation agreement signed by Hamas and
Fatah on Wednesday in Cairo.
Some Israelis claimed that if the Americans were able to locate and kill
bin Laden in a commando operation after 10 years, then Israel should be
able to rescue Gilad Schalit from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip in a
similar operation. But the truth is that the reconciliation agreement
signed by Hamas and Fatah may actually do more for Schalit than the
inspiration the Navy Seals provided this week. According to some
intelligence assessments, Egypt’s return to center stage in the
Palestinian arena could help advance negotiations for a prisoner swap
that would secure Schalit’s release.
Beyond that, Israel does not believe anything positive will come from
the reconciliation agreement, which Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency)
chief Yuval Diskin termed this week a “façade” of Palestinian unity.
The problem is that for the world, this façade might just work. Much of
the world today is highly sympathetic to the Palestinians, particularly
in light of what it sees as Israeli intransigence, and may not bother to
review the intricacies of the deal and see that the chances of real
Fatah-Hamas unity are slim. While the agreement has been signed, neither
side appears ready to let the other into the territory it controls –
Hamas into the West Bank and Fatah into the Gaza Strip.
But even without full implementation, the deal in its current format
could be enough to get the world to throw its support behind Palestinian
Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s expected unilateral declaration of
statehood at the UN in September. After all, Abbas will be able to argue
that the Palestinian people are no longer divided, and therefore there
is no longer any real obstacle for them to receive independence.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government will, and already does,
find itself being led by the PA. It is not initiating, but constantly
reacting – first to the PA unity deal and now to the plans for
In the long term, the concern in the defense establishment is that this
strategy – or lack thereof – will ultimately backfire and lead to a
possible escalation in violence in September if nothing changes on the
ground despite the declaration of statehood.