OPINIONS

Wed 28 Feb 2024 8:43 am - Jerusalem Time

How Israel’s Assassination Campaign Against Hamas Could Backfire

By Riley McCabe, 

Israel has made no secret of its intent to hunt down Hamas leaders outside of Gaza in response to the group’s attack on October 7, 2023. The chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, Ronen Bar, said in recordings made public on Dec. 4, 2023, that Israel will kill Hamas leaders “in every location, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar, everyone.”

Indeed, Israel’s campaign is already underway. On Jan. 2, an Israeli drone strike in Beirut killed Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s deputy political leader and an important liaison with the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Perhaps no other country has the same level of experience and skill in conducting assassinations as Israel. Facing terrorist attacks, war, and existential threats throughout its history, Israel has time and again responded to its geopolitical challenges with assassination campaigns.

However, Israel’s experience also reveals the many risks and strategic limitations of this approach. As Israel pursues Hamas leaders around the world in the coming months and years, its decision-makers must carefully weigh the potential benefits and risks of its campaign and recognize that even a successful string of assassinations of Hamas leaders will not resolve the threats that Israel faces or provide long-term security.


The Benefits

Israel can benefit in several ways from a global effort to assassinate Hamas leaders. By publicly declaring its campaign, Israel has likely already disrupted the group’s day-to-day functioning as its leaders attempt to reduce their profile. Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar, and other senior Hamas leaders will struggle to provide more than basic strategic guidance as they avoid electronic communication, remain on the move, and skip meetings and other gatherings.

When Israel does conduct assassinations, the loss of personnel—particularly political and operational leaders—will degrade the knowledge, experience, and leadership that is critical to the functioning of the organization. Combined with Hamas’s losses as a result of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, a successful series of assassinations would temporarily reduce the threat of future attacks from Hamas by eliminating the group’s ideological and operational leaders. It is also possible that new leaders who emerge within Hamas in the wake of such a campaign will be deterred from conducting attacks against Israel for fear of being personally targeted.

A campaign of assassinations would also lift Israeli public morale. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces immense pressure over his government’s failures leading up to and on Oct. 7. Punishing those behind the attack would likely relieve some domestic political pressure and contribute to restoring public confidence in the Israeli intelligence community and military. A widely successful assassination campaign could even make the prospects for a cease-fire in Gaza more amenable to the Israeli public.


The Risks

In pursuit of these benefits, Israel has begun its campaign of assassinations against Hamas leaders. However, such a campaign is fraught with risks. Hamas leaders who live outside of the Palestinian territories are primarily concentrated in Lebanon and Syria, though several of its most senior figures live in Qatar and Turkey. Attempts to kill Hamas leaders in either of these latter two countries carry significant diplomatic risks.

Botched attempts or discovered assassinations would severely undermine Israeli relations with Qatar and Turkey and could increase either country’s diplomatic or financial support for Hamas. On Dec. 6, 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Israel would “pay a very heavy price” if it tried to assassinate members of Hamas in his country. Over the next nine weeks, Turkish police arrested more than 40 people suspected of spying for Mossad, another Israeli intelligence agency.

Israel is reportedly keenly aware of these risks, and former officials have expressed their skepticism that Israel will attempt to conduct assassinations in the two countries due to their military ties to NATO and economic relationships with the West and Israel itself.

Still, Israel has conducted assassinations in at least 17 countries around the globe over the years, in many cases despite the potential for diplomatic repercussions. Israel can also try to circumvent the diplomatic risks in a couple of ways. First, it can wait for Hamas leaders to leave Turkey and Qatar for countries where the diplomatic blowback of a hit would be lower. However, being aware of the threats against them, it is highly likely that Hamas leaders will avoid international travel to areas where they can be more readily targeted.

A second option for Israel is to attempt to conduct low-signature assassinations, which conceal the involvement of Israel by making the death look natural or by chance. In the past, Israel has attempted low-signature killings by slowly delivering poison to a target via toothpaste and by blowing up a car in a way that made it look as though the target was transporting explosives. Such operations require meticulous planning and flawless execution in order to successfully conceal Israel’s involvement.

But when low-signature hits go wrong, the diplomatic consequences can be disastrous. In 1997, Israel’s attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan, using a poison spray concealed as the spritz from a fizzy soda, went awry. Two Mossad agents were arrested and six others took refuge in the Israeli Embassy in Amman. To secure the release of its agents, Israel provided the antidote to save Mashal’s life and released Hamas’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, along with many other Palestinian prisoners.

Realistically, because Israel publicly declared its assassination campaign in response to the Oct. 7 attack, the death of any Hamas leader in the future will draw immediate accusations against Israel, irrespective of its actual involvement. As a result, even low-signature killings that successfully conceal Israel’s role will not shield it from diplomatic repercussions.

Assassinations of Hamas leaders also risk disrupting hostage negotiations. This concern reportedly tempered initial calls from some Israeli officials to launch an aggressive assassination campaign immediately after the Oct. 7 attack. Since more than 100 hostages are believed to remain in captivity, this concern persists.

In addition to the diplomatic risks, Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders may intensify retaliatory attacks from groups aligned with Hamas, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Although Hezbollah did not immediately retaliate for the killing of al-Arouri in Lebanon, the group could still respond in other ways, including by attacking Israeli or Jewish targets elsewhere around the globe, as it has done in the past. Instead of being deterred by an Israeli assassination campaign, the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and other groups may ultimately be inspired to conduct more violence.

Assassinations of all kinds are also tactically difficult to execute and pose inherent risks to operatives and bystanders. Israel has extensive experience and sophisticated capabilities to conduct assassinations. These will be enhanced by the intelligence on Hamas that Israel is collecting during its military operations in Gaza. Nevertheless, assassination operations can go awry due to unforeseen or uncontrollable variables, jeopardizing the lives of innocents.

Finally, the risks of an assassination campaign extend beyond kinetic and diplomatic repercussions. Israel’s efforts could backfire by giving rise to more extreme figures and more dangerous scenarios. For example, the eventual assassination in 2004 of Yassin, the aforementioned Hamas founder, effectively removed all limits he had placed on the group’s relationship with Iran, ultimately elevating threats to Israel.

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How Israel’s Assassination Campaign Against Hamas Could Backfire

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