Analysis: Syria visit may have been a diversion

Israel's leaders look in opposite direction before assassinating Jabari.

Netanyahu Barak whispering 370 (photo credit: PMO/Courtesy)
Netanyahu Barak whispering 370
(photo credit: PMO/Courtesy)
Israel's leaders were literally looking in the opposite direction, and making sure everyone knew it, just before catching Hamas's top commander in the Gaza Strip off-guard in an air strike that killed him.
In what now appears to have been a diversionary tactic, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak paid a visit to the Syrian frontier in the north, hours before the air offensive began in the south.
The show of concern over errant mortar shells that have landed in the Golan Heights from Syria was widely reported during the day by Israeli media.
In fact, Israeli experts now say, the visit may have been part of a ploy to deceive Hamas into believing that a truce was in place in Gaza, so that the Israeli army could catch its target, Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Jabari.
"The sense of complacency that Barak and Netanyahu created ... brought Jabari and his friends out of his holes and made possible the surprise attack," military affairs analyst Alex Fishman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth.
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Israel has a thick list of potential targets in the Gaza Strip, an enclave regularly criss-crossed by IAF drones and where militants' movements are routinely logged. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which oversaw the assassination of Jabari, keeps tabs on Hamas leaders with a network of informers.
So it is surprising that the usually cautious militant, who had just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, chose to drive in broad daylight down a main Gaza street. His car was hit by a missile in an attack filmed from the air and put on YouTube.
Sending public signals
Jabari may have been lulled into the open by public signals from Israel that a round of cross-border violence along the frontier in the past week had run its course.
On Monday, Netanyahu convened the nine-member inner cabinet to discuss an upsurge of Hamas rocket attacks last weekend that had been disrupting life for a million Israelis in the South but seemed to be abating.
It was at that meeting, political sources said, that a Shin Bet plan to assassinate Jabari was approved and the first act of deception was played out: Minister Benny Begin, a member of the forum, went on Israeli radio to say the current round of violence appeared to be over.
Hamas apparently bought the message. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said Israel, in launching the offensive, had violated an informal truce brokered by mediators.
"The factions abided by the understanding of calm, and the occupation bears the responsibility for the consequences that will follow the ugly crime," he said.
Israel had largely suspended assassinations of top Hamas men in recent years, strikes that could have triggered wider violence along the Gaza frontier.
It focused instead on targeting rocket launching crews in low-intensity warfare marked by cyclical cross-border exchanges usually calmed by Egyptian-mediated ceasefires.
The IDF used similar ruses to conceal its plans before launching its three-week Gaza war in December 2008.
Days before that offensive began, Defense Minister Barak made an unusual and unannounced live appearance on a top-rated TV satire show, giving the impression that starting a war could not be further from his mind.
In another twist at the time, officers were summoned from garrisons around Gaza to a weekend with their families at a countryside spa. All but the most senior of those invited commanders were then surprised to be woken up, that Saturday morning, and sent back to base for combat within hours.