Israel began its current attack on Hamas with a tactical surprise, by killing Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari on November 14. The previous day, Israeli leaders were already publicly musing about a return to this policy of “targeted killings” as a relatively cost-free way of responding to Hamas’s barrage of rockets.
But does the policy actually work in stopping Hamas from continued rocket attacks? Yes—but only in the short term, and only because today Hamas also has an interest in avoiding a battle to the death.
Israel has a long history of assassinating (or, in the more sanitized analytical term, “decapitating”) leaders of militant and terrorist groups. As a policy, it began in earnest in the 1970s, as Israel both killed off individuals in the PLO and tracked down the murderers of the Munich Olympics athletes.
In 1988, top PLO official Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) was assassinated. Throughout the 1990s, Israel targeted other groups, killing Hezbollah leader Abbas Musawi in 1992, Islamic Jihad chief Fathi Shikaki in 1995, and then focusing mostly on Hamas and, as the Second Intifada raged, Fatah and Fatah offshoots. The later 2000s saw more assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, culminating in March-April 2004 with the deaths of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
The scholarly literature is divided on whether assassinations of leaders of terrorist/militant groups work or not. Bruce Hoffman argues that the policy only incites groups to work harder to kill, while Bryan Price contends that in the long-term, decapitation leads to instability in and then collapse of the organization. For his part, Dan Byman suggests the overall balance sheet is just very difficult to assess.
In Israel’s case, killing off leaders and operatives of Hamas has a mixed record. The assassination of Yehiya Ayyash in 1996 led to an unprecedented campaign of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. On the other hand, the spate of assassinations during the Second Intifada put Hamas on the defensive and undermined its capacity and will to operate as aggressively.
We don’t have enough evidence to know if this would also be the case for rocket attacks. Moreover, Israel has successfully used other means to stop rocket fire. It launched a major air and ground assault on Hamas in 2008-2009 to stop heavy rocket fire, and that certainly convinced Hamas to contain the violence coming out of Gaza.
But we can extrapolate from previous experience that decapitation does incentivize Hamas to ease up on its attacks. What makes it harder to gauge the utility of the policy is that Hamas’s raison d’être is no longer the destruction of Israel (or at least that’s not its only position). As a major player in the Palestinian Authority from 2006 until its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, and as the governing power in the Strip since then, Hamas has a stake in staying alive and relevant. It’s increasingly recognized by other states as legitimate, giving it the chance of becoming more powerful in Palestinian politics.
Its own internal politics suggest it’s struggling to reorganize in the wake of the Syrian civil war and efforts by Fatah to take the initiative at the UN. To fend off its rivals, Hamas can’t be more open to negotiation than Fatah, but it can’t be less committed to “resistance” than the smaller Gazan groups.
Hamas isn’t looking to go out in a blaze of glory anymore, if it ever was. It wants to carefully balance out its actions.
What this suggests is that targeted killings degrade Hamas’s capabilities in the short term, forcing its officials underground, making it harder to exert leadership over the group, and promoting greater caution about antagonizing Israel. But Hamas’s goal to remain relevant makes it rely on rockets as well as other means, and sometimes its need will be greater—prompting heavier rocket fire—while at other times it will be lesser—leading to restraint on its part.
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