The pros and cons of targeted killings

No one knows as yet whether Muhammad Deif is dead or alive, but the attempt on the Hamas military commander’s life raises questions on the effectiveness of assassinations.

Palestinians stand by the rubble of the home of Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians stand by the rubble of the home of Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dead or alive? Was Muhammad Deif, legendary chief of the Izzadin Kassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, eliminated in a targeted killing by Israel – or did he survive the attack? Israelis and Palestinians have been asking that question since the early hours of Wednesday morning, when reports of an attempted assassination first surfaced. Yet while the assumption is that he was likely killed, over 48 hours later, we remain in the dark.
Hamas’s websites and spokesmen declared Deif alive and kicking. Some of them even made a mockery of what they described at yet another Israeli failure to assassinate him.
Like a cat with nine lives, Deif has survived at least four, and probably more attempts by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to kill him. Israeli officials, for their part, added to the aura of mystery by remaining ambiguous. They hinted he was most probably killed but weren’t sure, and did not wish to commit themselves to a statement they would regret.
It seems Israel is waiting for an additional piece of information and for real evidence from Hamas about what really happened at 10 p.m. Tuesday, when an Israel Air Force plane dropped five tons of bombs on a Gaza house, destroying it and killing one of Deif’s wives and their baby, together with four members of the host family.
Let’s assume for a moment that Deif was killed in the attack: What would the implications and ramifications of such a hit be? Having survived four Israeli attempts and being severely disabled, Deif has become in recent years more of an “honorary” commander of the military wing rather than its acting chief. Nevertheless, he has been involved in the major strategic military decisions taken by the movement – including transforming Hamas into a semi-military organization with battalions and brigades (with two of its six brigade commanders killed in a joint Shin Bet-IAF operation Wednesday night); and involvement in the tunnel and rocket programs.
Thus, killing him would be a morale booster for Israel and a psychological blow for Hamas.
The Gaza war has become more about public relations, images and awareness than about success in the battlefield. Every side aspires for an Iwo Jima-style “victory photo” – and killing Deif could provide that image for Israel.
There is a downside, however: If Deif managed to survive a fifth Israeli attempt on his life, it will elevate his godlike status not just among Hamas, but among the Palestinian constituency everywhere.
THE LARGER question here is whether Israel’s assassination policy is paying off. For decades, Israeli intelligence chiefs have debated the wisdom and effectiveness of the policy – a debate that is less of a moral or ethical deliberation, but a more practical one.
The late David Kimche, a senior Mossad operative, told me more than a decade ago that he and his colleagues had discussed many times whether the organization should be involved in assassinations and targeted killings. Some argue against it, claiming that the Mossad is not a Murder, Inc., and killing terrorist leaders is counterproductive.
A quick reminder: Less than two years ago, Israel’s previous campaign in Gaza opened with the killing of Ahmed Jabari, then operating commander of Hamas’s military wing, as Deif was still recuperating from his Israeli-inflicted wounds. Quickly enough, Hamas recovered from the loss of Jabari and replaced him with a new commander, Marwan Issa, today still the military wing’s acting chief.
There are many other examples, the most blatant being the 1992 assassination of Hezbollah secretary- general Abbas Moussawi; he was replaced by a more skillful leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
The long history of Israel’s war against terrorist leaders and military operatives reads like the final chapter of the Passover Seder: one killing leads to a new leader, who is then killed, followed by a new leader, and so forth.
But on the other hand, does a country fighting terrorism have a choice? The nature of asymmetrical struggle between a state and a terror group is that it is an ongoing battle – a kind of war of attrition with no knockout. Israel – and for that matter, any other nation in a similar situation – doesn’t have the luxury of projecting an image of weakness and thus has to hit, retaliate and assassinate the enemy’s operatives. This is not in order to take revenge, but as a measure to disrupt future plots and eliminate the other side’s most capable leaders and commanders.
Israel’s intelligence and security apparatus has for years tried to devise a doctrine detailing when and who to target, based on how useful the termination would be. There are no textbook answers, only general observations. Killing a leader of a small group – a near one-man show – can paralyze that organization.
But when it comes to larger terrorist groups well-rooted in the community, sooner or later a new – sometimes even more talented and daring – chief will turn up.
Regardless of whether Deif is dead or alive, it will not change the reality of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Both sides need an exit strategy, a long-term agreement to end the violence; for that to happen, they must swallow their pride and agree to a compromise.