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Israel's assassination campaign against Hamas could backfire


Highlights: Israel's assassination campaign against Hamas could backfire. A successful campaign could raise the morale of the Israeli population and eliminate the imminent threat to Israel. However, it also entails diplomatic risks and the risk of escalating the conflict. Hostage negotiations could also be dangerous. It is questionable whether a series of killings by extremists can sustainably curb violence in the region. A largely successful assassination campaign could even make the prospects for a Gaza ceasefire more favorable to the Israeli public. Eliminating Hamas leaders by force poses an diplomatic and security risks for Israel.

As of: March 2, 2024, 5:16 p.m

From: Foreign Policy




Israel wants to hunt down leading members of Hamas in retaliation.

But a series of attacks could escalate the situation in the Gaza war.

  • Israel is known for its tactical assassinations of Hamas leaders.

  • A successful assassination campaign could raise the morale of the Israeli population and eliminate the imminent threat to Israel.

  • However, it also entails diplomatic risks and the risk of escalating the conflict.

    Hostage negotiations could also be dangerous.

  • It is questionable whether a series of killings by extremists can sustainably curb violence in the region.

  • This article is available for the first time in German - it was first published by

    Foreign Policy

    magazine on February 27, 2024 .

Israel has made no secret of its intention to hunt down Hamas leaders outside the Gaza Strip in response to the attack on October 7, 2023.

Israel's Shin Bet intelligence chief Ronen Bar said in recordings released on December 4, 2023 that Israel has Hamas leaders "in every place, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar, “everywhere”.

Israel: Master in carrying out assassinations

Indeed, Israel's campaign is already underway.

On January 2, an Israeli drone strike in Beirut killed Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas' deputy political leader and a key liaison to Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Perhaps no other country has as much experience and skill in carrying out attacks as Israel.

In the face of terrorist attacks, war and existential threats, Israel has repeatedly responded to its geopolitical challenges with attacks throughout its history.

However, Israel's experience also shows the numerous 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 series of assassinations of Hamas leaders poses the threats Israel faces will not eliminate or provide long-term security.

There are still hundreds of hostages in the Israel war.

© Leo Correa/dpa

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Israel stands to benefit in several ways from a global campaign to assassinate Hamas leaders.

By publicly declaring its campaign, Israel has likely already disrupted the group's day-to-day functioning as its leaders seek to lower its profile.

Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and other senior Hamas leaders will find it difficult to provide more than basic strategic instructions as they avoid electronic communication, are constantly on the move and skip meetings and other gatherings.

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If Israel carries out assassinations, the loss of personnel - particularly political and operational leaders - will undermine the knowledge, experience and leadership skills that are critical to the organization's functioning.

Combined with Hamas's losses as a result of Israel's military action in Gaza, a successful series of assassinations would temporarily reduce the threat of future Hamas attacks by eliminating the group's ideological and operational leaders.

It is also possible that new leaders who emerge within Hamas after such a campaign will be discouraged from attacking Israel for fear of being personally targeted.

A campaign of assassinations would also raise the morale of the Israeli public.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under great pressure over his government's failures before and on October 7th.

Punishing those behind the attack would likely ease some of the domestic political pressure and help restore public trust in Israeli intelligence and the military.

A largely successful assassination campaign could even make the prospects for a Gaza ceasefire more favorable to the Israeli public.

Eliminating Hamas leaders by force poses diplomatic and security risks for Israel

In an effort to take advantage of these advantages, Israel has embarked on a campaign of assassinations of Hamas leaders.

However, such a campaign is fraught with risks.

Hamas leaders living outside the Palestinian territories are primarily in Lebanon and Syria, although some of their most senior representatives live in Qatar and Turkey.

Attempts to kill Hamas leaders in either of the latter two countries pose significant diplomatic risks.

Botched attempts or discovered assassinations would seriously affect Israeli relations with Qatar and Turkey and could increase the two countries' diplomatic or financial support for Hamas.

On December 6, 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Israel would pay “a very high price” if it attempted to assassinate Hamas members in his country.

Over the next nine weeks, Turkish police arrested more than 40 people suspected of spying for the Mossad - another Israeli intelligence service.

Israel is reportedly well aware of these risks.

Former officials have expressed skepticism that Israel will attempt to carry out assassinations in the two countries because of its military ties with NATO and its economic ties with the West.

Attacks on Hamas members are part of the Mossad's standard repertoire

Yet Israel has carried out assassinations in at least 17 countries around the globe over the years, in many cases despite the potential diplomatic repercussions.

Israel can also try to circumvent such risks in various ways.

First, it can wait until Hamas leaders leave Turkey and Qatar for other countries where the diplomatic impact of an attack would be smaller.

However, because they are aware of the threats against them, it is very likely that they will avoid international travel to areas where they can be more easily targeted.

A second option for Israel is to try to carry out attacks with a less obvious signature.

It could obscure his involvement by making the death appear natural or accidental.

In the past, Israel has attempted such killings by slowly administering poison to a target via toothpaste or by blowing up a car so that it appeared as if the target was transporting explosives.

Such operations require meticulous planning and flawless execution to successfully conceal involvement.

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An overly aggressive decimation of Hamas could endanger hostage negotiations

However, when such attacks go wrong, the diplomatic consequences can be catastrophic.

In 1997, Israel's attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan with a poison spray disguised as a soda failed.

Two Mossad agents were arrested and six others fled to the Israeli embassy in Amman.

To secure the release of its agents, Israel provided the antidote that saved Masha's life and released Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin along with many other Palestinian prisoners.

Realistically, the death of a Hamas leader will prompt immediate accusations against Israel in the future, since Israel publicly declared its campaign of murder in response to the October 7 attack - regardless of his actual involvement.

As a result, even assassinations in which Israel's role is successfully concealed will not protect the country from diplomatic consequences.

The killing of Hamas leaders also risks disrupting hostage negotiations.

This concern reportedly dampened some Israeli officials' initial calls for an aggressive assassination campaign in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack.

With more than 100 hostages believed to still be in captivity, this concern remains.

Attempted murder may cause collateral damage

Aside from the diplomatic risks, Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders could also increase retaliatory attacks by Hamas-allied groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

Although Hezbollah did not immediately retaliate for al-Arouri's killing in Lebanon, the group could still respond in other ways, including by attacking Israeli or Jewish targets in other parts of the world, as it has done in the past has.

Rather than being deterred by an Israeli assassination campaign, the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and other groups could ultimately be inspired to commit more violence.

Attacks of all kinds are also difficult to carry out tactically and pose risks for attackers and bystanders.

Israel has extensive experience and sophisticated capabilities in carrying out assassinations.

These are reinforced by the intelligence on Hamas that Israel collects during its military operations in the Gaza Strip.

However, assassinations can go wrong due to unforeseen or uncontrollable variables, endangering the lives of innocent people.

Ultimately, the risks of an assassination campaign go beyond practical and diplomatic implications.

Israel's efforts could backfire and lead to even more extreme personalities and more dangerous scenarios.

For example, the assassination of Hamas founder Yassin in 2004 removed all restrictions he had placed on the group's relations with Iran, ultimately increasing the threat to Israel.

Wiping out Hamas is no guarantee of peace in the Middle East

Ultimately, even a successful assassination campaign cannot eliminate the long-term threat of Palestinian violence against Israel.

Israel's assassination apparatus is so tactically adept that the Israeli leadership has often mistaken it for a strategic tool.

In reality, assassination campaigns - no matter how extensive and effective - have never and never will solve Israel's problems with the Palestinians.

During the Second Intifada, Israel conducted the most extensive campaign of targeted killings in its history.

According to Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, around 1,000 attacks were carried out between 2000 and 2005.

The campaign decimated the leadership of Hamas as well as factions within Fatah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and put an end to a wave of suicide attacks against Israel.

Nevertheless, these groups survived.

Hamas managed to regroup politically and militarily and gain control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

The subsequent fighting between Israel and Hamas and the October 7 attack show that even Israel's most successful assassination campaign ultimately only suppressed the problem of Palestinian militancy.

Israel's assassination campaign has tactical limits

Today, Israel's leadership is once again determined to hunt Hamas to extinction.

It is entirely possible that Israel is taking revenge on several Hamas leaders for their role in the October 7 attack.

In the best case scenario, from Israel's perspective, successful operations will kill several Hamas leaders while avoiding the numerous diplomatic and escalation risks.

Combined with the ground campaign in Gaza, the targeted killings will save countless Israeli lives by reducing the group's threat for several years.

Conversely, it is easy to imagine far worse scenarios if Israel fails to avoid potential pitfalls that could lead to various crises.

In any scenario, however, the Israeli leadership must recognize the strategic limits of its campaign.

Violence alone, including assassinations, cannot eliminate the threat of Palestinian violence.

Israel's leadership must resist the urge to rely on its ability to carry out assassinations and instead make difficult policy decisions that combat the forces underlying extremism.

To the author

Riley McCabe

is a research associate and program manager for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

His research focuses on military operations, new technologies and irregular warfare.

Twitter (X): @rileydmccabe

We are currently testing machine translations.

This article was automatically translated from English into German.

This article was first published in English in the magazine “” on February 27, 2024 - as part of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to readers of the IPPEN.MEDIA portals.

Source: merkur

All news articles on 2024-03-02

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