The killing of two top Hamas commanders, Mohammed Abu Shamaleh and Raed Attar, could be the tiebreaker that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seeking in the Gaza war.
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Israel has sought to target Hamas commanders since the campaign began on July 8, but that hasn’t worked out because of a lack of intelligence, or, most probably, because Hamas leaders make sure to surround themselves with civilians.
But something has changed in recent days. Within 48 hours, Israel made two assassination attempts. The first was an air strike on the house where Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif was suspected to be. The second was the air strike in Rafah that killed Abu Shameleh, Attar and a more junior commander.
Deif’s fate remains unclear – he may have evaded death or he may be buried under the rubble, despite Hamas’ firm denials. But with Abu Shamaleh and Attar there is no doubt. Hamas has officially stated that they are dead.
Israel might have benefited from an intelligence breakthrough that helped it locate the two, or maybe Netanyahu is more willing to risk harm to civilians because of the potential achievement (not that the number of civilians killed in this attack was high).
With the war at an apparent dead end, Netanyahu needs a military achievement. Israel won’t vanquish Hamas; it didn’t want to. The prime minister has been ignoring the hawks in his cabinet to crush the Hamas government. He doesn’t want another ground incursion now that the efforts to destroy Hamas’ tunnels have succeeded – at the cost of 64 soldiers and officers.
Assassinations of Hamas leaders could bring Netanyahu the achievement he seeks; they sink both the group’s morale and its ability to carry out operations. And they’re a tangible result that can be presented to the people, who have been complaining about the continuous rocket fire and worrying about the suffering of Israelis near Gaza.
In the coming hours, Hamas will surely respond to the killing of its leaders with massive rocket fire. That’s what it did Wednesday after Deif’s wife and baby son were killed in the assassination attempt.
Still, Hamas can only cause limited damage to Israel with its rockets; Iron Dome batteries have been deployed around the country to deal with the barrages. The big question is whether Hamas is preparing more military surprises; for example, a terror attack through a tunnel that Israel hasn’t found yet.
In the longer run, the question is the assassinations’ damage to Hamas, and whether they’ll dampen its spirit to fight. Israel’s goal is clear: in the short run, to absorb Hamas’ response while incurring as little damage as possible — then lead the group back to indirect talks to end the fighting.
This time Hamas would be coming back to the table with its operational abilities a bit battered. But since several upbeat forecasts have been proved wrong, it’s still not clear if Israel’s plan will work.