Security & Defense: So targeted killings do work, after all

The killing of Osama bin Laden shows the US recognizes the importance of a type of attack Israel is very familiar with.

situation room watching bin laden raid_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
situation room watching bin laden raid_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
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 assassinations.
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 infrastructure.
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 organizations.”
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 2010.
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 symbolic figurehead.
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 statehood.
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.