Aviation engineer and drone expert Mohammed Zawahri, who was shot to death Thursday in Tunisia, joins a long list of Mideast militants whose assassinations have been attributed to Israel. On Saturday afternoon, a bit late, Hamas’ military wing announced that Zawahri had headed Hamas’ drone-development program.
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In the last decade alone, the assassination in Tunisia was preceded by that of Imad Mughniyeh, head of Hezbollah’s terror operations, who was killed in Damascus. Meanwhile, Hassan Lakkis, Hezbollah’s technology chief, was killed in Beirut, while Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas weapons smuggler, was bumped off in Dubai.
A year ago, Samir Kuntar, the Druze terrorist who joined Hezbollah after his release from Israeli prison in a prisoner swap, was killed in an airstrike in Syria. In all these cases, the organizations accused Israel, and Israel maintained ambiguity by not talking about who was responsible for the assassinations. But it made clear that it reserved the right to fight terror even far from its borders.
Israel’s declared policy, except for extreme cases (such as the assassinations of those responsible for the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich) states that strikes against terrorists are meant to thwart future attacks, not settle scores. According to the media in Lebanon and Tunisia, Zawahri, though a Tunisian citizen, joined Hamas’ military wing back in the ‘90s.
It’s reasonable to assume a combination of drone expertise with common ideological ground – Zawahri was a member of the local Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent movement. It seems he also had connections with Hezbollah. There are reports that he operated out of Damascus in the past, where Hamas had offices until 2012, and that he was recently in Lebanon. The Arab media also said Zawahri had entered the Gaza Strip a number of times via tunnels from Sinai to instruct members of Hamas’ military wing.
The military wings of the two Palestinian organizations in Gaza, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have been developing drones for years. More than a decade ago, six Islamic Jihad activists were killed in Gaza in an explosion while they were opening a package containing a model airplane they had ordered from abroad.
In recent years Hamas has used drones to observe Israel Defense Forces activities around Gaza. In July 2014, during that summer’s war, a drone that entered Israeli airspace from Gaza near Ashdod was intercepted by an IDF Patriot missile. A year later another drone entered Israeli airspace from Gaza but fell in an open area before the air force could shoot it down.
It may be assumed that Hamas is also interested in “suicide drones” carrying explosives to blow up over enemy targets. Hezbollah, which shares some of its techniques with Hamas, has for years used Iranian-made Ababil-series drones, which were shot down in two episodes over Israel during the Second Lebanon War. Some of the drones were carrying explosives.
Hamas is constantly looking for ways to overcome the Israeli army’s edge in a conflict in Gaza. It’s preparing a variety of means of attack meant to move some of the fighting into Israel while the IDF is operating in the Strip. Along with tunnels, Hamas is using diver commandos, as it did at Zikkim Beach at the start of the 2014 war, as well as attack drones and paratroopers using paragliders.
Despite Hamas’ announcement that Zawahri was a member, and the organization’s suspicion that Israel was behind the assassination, the incident won’t necessarily lead to a conflict on the Gaza border. In previous cases as well, like the killing of Mabhouh in Dubai, Hamas did not respond on the border.
A decision to attack Israel again involves broader considerations such as the appointment of a new political leader to replace Khaled Meshal, who has announced his retirement. There are also tensions between the organization’s political and military wings, and the harsh conditions of life in Gaza.
At the moment it seems the main consideration for restraint by Hamas has to do with the heavy price it paid in the 2014 war, along with a sense that Egypt, which has tightened its security cooperation with Israel, does not want to provide any backing to Hamas.
Under these circumstances, Israel must of course prepare for a possible revenge attack. But Hamas isn’t likely to renew the fighting just because of the death of a Tunisian civilian far from Gaza, no matter how important he was to Hamas’ drone program.