How Israel Would Benefit From Keeping Quiet on Hamas Commander's Assassination

If Israel is indeed behind the hit, this sends a message of deterrence to other Palestinian prisoners it deported to Gaza.

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Members of the Palestinian Hamas security forces march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on March 30, 2017.
Members of the Palestinian Hamas security forces march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on March 30, 2017.Credit: Mahmud Hams, AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The assassination of Hamas’ senior military official Mazen Fuqaha a week ago – perpetrated at close range on the Gaza City seashore on a moonless night, from four precisely fired rounds – was immediately described in the media as the work of professionals. The fact that the assailants disappeared from the scene so fast (“As though the earth swallowed them,” in the old cliche) reinforced the assessment that the hit was the work of one of Israel’s security organizations. Official Israel is keeping mum, but from Hamas’ point of view, there seems to be no mystery.

The Islamist organization announced that it will exact revenge on Israel but added, in the spirit of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during the first Gulf War, that the payback would come at a suitable time and place. On Wednesday night, Hamas posted a video on social media showing senior Israeli figures who were potential targets: the defense minister, the public security minister, the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff and his deputy, and, for some reason, the commander of the new IDF’s Commando Brigade.

Hamas might also opt for other forms of revenge: sniper fire along the security fence that encircles the Gaza Strip; shooting or suicide attacks in the West Bank; or even a strike at Israeli citizens abroad. This week, the antiterrorism unit in the Prime Minister’s Office issued an unusually severe travel advisory with respect to the Sinai peninsula, and urged all Israelis there to return home immediately.

In the past, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and even Iran have issued direct threats against key Israeli figures following assassinations that were attributed to Israel. None of the threats has ever been carried out – though, as it happened, a unit from Fatah’s military wing almost succeeded in murdering a senior Israeli naval officer in an improvised action at the beginning of the second intifada in 2001. The officer, Col. Natan Barak, had managed to save his family after discovering a bomb planted near their home in Ra’anana. After his retirement from the IDF, Barak established a high-tech firm that made a considerable contribution to the Iron Dome anti-missile system. He was awarded the Israel Security Prize in 2012.

No one in Israel shed a tear for Fuqaha. In 2002, as a key operative in Hamas’ murderous network in the West Bank, he dispatched a terrorist who murdered nine Israeli civilians in a bus attack at Meron Junction in the north. Fuqaha was sentenced to life in prison but nine years later, was released as part of the deal to free captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit (in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners), and deported to Gaza. Since then, he never stopped planning and funding new attacks via Hamas units in the West Bank, in an effort to rehabilitate the network that was eradicated by the Shin Bet toward the end of the intifada.

If it was indeed Israel that assassinated Fuqaha, this sends a message of deterrence to other Shalit-deal deportees: that the Gaza Strip does not give you immunity. From the moment you violated your commitment and went back to engaging in terrorism, take into consideration that someone will settle accounts with you.

One can assume perhaps that for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, uncredited assassinations could seem to be a promising operational solution. Air strikes – in which bombs weighing half a ton or a ton are dropped on Gaza – oblige Israel to take responsibility. Assassination by pistol leaves question marks. There have already been similar assassinations within the terror organizations, such as the liquidation of a senior Hezbollah figure, Mustafa Badreddine, last year in Syria. This form of assassination also leaves Israel room to deny involvement or ignore the incident altogether.

But there are also examples in which tactical feasibility led to operations whose cumulative success entailed subsequent strategic entanglement. This was the case, in retrospect, with the assassination of Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi, in 1992 (he was replaced by a far more sophisticated adversary, Hassan Nasrallah); the assassination of Hamas’ chief bombmaker Yahya Ayyash in 1996 (triggering a wave of suicide attacks); and the killing, in January 2002, of Raad Karmi – the senior Fatah figure from Tul Karm, who sent the terrorist to Natan Barak’s home. Karmi’s death spurred his comrades in Fatah to escalate their struggle and buried for good the efforts to end the second intifada with a cease-fire.

The effectiveness of these three assassinations remains controversial to this day among the security personnel involved in them. The question is whether a similar view will be taken of the Fuqaha hit, which has been attributed to Israel, in the future.

In the background, other trends are developing that are accelerating the possibility of a clash with Hamas in the Strip. The living conditions there continue to deteriorate. All the relevant Israeli security units – Military Intelligence, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Southern Command and, to a lesser degree, even the Shin Bet – recommend that steps be taken to boost the economy in Gaza. In the months ahead, extensive efforts to build a new security barrier, both above and below ground, along Israel’s border with Gaza, will proceed at full steam. With dozens of Israeli teams digging along the fence, Hamas leaders will ask themselves whether it might be a good idea to use the operative attack tunnels immediately, before they are blocked by the IDF.

Army Radio reported this week that Hamas recently developed new short-range rockets with heavy warheads. Dozens of these rockets are slated for use against Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. They reflect what also may be an intention to strike locales along the border in the event of another war. Hamas seemingly understands that its rocket capability allows for no more than harassment of the Tel Aviv region, as the Iron Dome system will easily cope with its few medium-range rockets. But the pounding of the area immediately adjacent to the Gaza Strip with bombs, mortars and heavy rockets seems, in our view, to be an attainable objective, which is why the IDF is deploying to evacuate most of those communities – similar to its plans for the northern border, with Syria – in the next confrontation.

The IDF, which is incalculably stronger than Hamas, has been training with growing intensiveness in the past two years to ensure that there is no repetition of its mediocre performance in Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. But the Iraqi-American campaign to capture Mosul from Islamic State is a reminder of the difficulties of combat in heavily built-up areas, in which the civilian population becomes a human shield for the armed militants. In recent weeks, there have been reports of hundreds of civilians killed in American air strikes, whether because of human error or because safety restrictions on the attacks (“collateral damage”) have been eased in the Trump era. And unlike the United States, which is now coming under criticism, Israel doesn’t have permanent membership in the UN Security Council.

Substitution institution

The state comptroller’s report on the 2014 Gaza war, which occupied the media for barely two days when it was published last month, highlighted the weakness of Israel’s National Security Council. The law under which the NSC was created assigns it the task of coordinating the work of both the regular cabinet and security cabinet when it comes to defense and diplomatic policy matters. However, in practice, the recent heads of the NSC have acted more as a direct operational arm – as personal emissaries for the prime minister on sensitive issues. That may be interesting and prestigious, but it’s not quite what the law aimed for.

On Sunday, Netanyahu expressed his gratitude to Yaakov Nagel, who is retiring. He described Nagel as the head of the NSC, which isn’t strictly accurate: Nagel was deputy head of the NSC and acting head since January 2016. Last summer, he turned down Netanyahu’s offer to officially become chief. His rejection came a few months after the embarrassment caused by the Avriel Bar-Yosef episode. Bar-Yosef, who like Nagel is a reserve brigadier general in the IDF, was chosen to succeed Yossi Cohen as head of the NSC when the latter was appointed director of the Mossad. But Bar-Yosef had to give up the appointment following a police investigation against him on suspicions of corruption.

Those suspicions are related to a peripheral issue involving the natural gas contracts. In recent months, questions also arose concerning Bar-Yosef’s involvement in the deals to acquire boats and submarines for the Israel Navy. A former naval officer, he pushed strongly in favor of the contracts with Germany. The police are still investigating, but a real stink emanates from what’s been reported in the media – on Channel 10, in Haaretz and other media outlets. However, because the state prosecution has stated that, according to the information it possesses, there are no suspicions against the prime minister (despite alleged involvement in the transactions of his private lawyer, David Shimron), public interest in the affair seems to be waning.

In the meantime, the NSC has no permanent head. On Wednesday, it was stated that the head of the antiterrorism unit, Eitan Ben-David, will temporarily succeed Nagel. So, a substitute has been appointed for a substitute, and the NSC has not had a permanent director for more than a year. After Netanyahu refuted claims by his political rivals that Israel is isolated internationally by making a series of visits abroad, it might be appropriate if he deals with this issue, too.

Untapped potential

Washington, I discovered after a short visit there this week, still seems to be trying to recover from the shock generated by the election of President Donald Trump. The veteran two-party establishment – consisting of officials, lobbyists, research institute personnel and journalists – which customarily changes every four or eight years (now you’re in power, next time it will be us), discovered that this time around the race was won by someone who is making clear that he won’t play by the old rules.

Trump is not only dominant in the daily round of newscasts. He himself is that daily round, which is dictated by his morning or nighttime tweets, whose wild character has become only slightly less restrained since he entered the White House.

Despite the numerous distractions, from the failure of the new health-care reform plan to the latest visit of a head of state (and the question of whether the president will succeed in offending him, too), hovering in the background is one news story that could decide the fate of Trump’s whole presidency. At its heart is the ongoing investigation about clandestine ties between the president’s aides and Russian authorities, and the possibility that President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services were able to influence the results of the election in November.

While walking amid the national memorial sites – to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King – near the Potomac, it was hard not to reflect on the disparity between past American leaders and the style of the current president. It looks almost like a reverse evolutionary chain, as reflected in a photograph published two weeks ago showing Trump (after a meeting with truckers) in the cabin of a large rig. The leader of the Free World is seen twisting his face, half in satisfaction and half threateningly, recalling a 5-year-old boy who took advantage of a moment when his parents were otherwise occupied to take control of the family car.

Not all of Trump’s predecessors excelled in their job. The memorial wall for the soldiers who died in Vietnam – located between the monuments to Washington and Lincoln – shows why Lyndon B. Johnson has not received the same honor as other presidents. Trump hasn’t yet fomented a disaster anywhere near the catastrophic consequences of Vietnam or the second Gulf War initiated by President George W. Bush. On the other hand, it was President Barack Obama – against the background of the Vietnam and Iraq traumas – who did nothing when hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in Syria. But Trump has only just begun. Give him a little more time. Judging by his behavior in his first two months in office, the potential for destruction is almost unlimited.

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