Following Thursday’s axe and knife attack in the illegal Israeli settlement of Elad which killed three settlers, there have been calls from Israel’s security establishment and media for a return to the targeted killing of Palestinian resistance leaders. It is reported that warnings to this effect have been conveyed to the leader of the political wing of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
The armed wing of the resistance movement issued a rare claim of responsibility for a 29 April attack in the illegal West Bank settlement of Ariel. This was, it said, in response to increased Israeli “aggression against Al-Aqsa Mosque” not least during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday in April.
At the end of last month, in his first speech in almost a year, Sinwar warned of further operations should Israeli settlers and security forces continue to violate the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa. He called on Palestinians to use whatever they have at their disposal in their resistance to the occupation: “Let everyone who has a rifle, ready it. And if you don’t have a rifle, ready your cleaver or an axe, or a knife.”
These comments have been interpreted as having at least inspired the Elad attacks, which fell on the 74th anniversary of the Nakba and Israeli Independence Day. Although one of the suspects who has since been arrested is thought to be a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in Jenin, the movement has not made an official claim of responsibility; nor has any other group at the time of writing.
There appears to be popular support across Israel’s political divide for the targeted killing of the Hamas chief, among those on the right as well as the so-called left in the increasingly extreme right-wing state.
“Sinwar is a dead man and he needs to be assassinated immediately,” Likud MK Yoav Gallant told Israel’s Channel 13 news. “If it was up to me, he would be dead tomorrow. Assassinate him, no matter what the consequences are.”
According to Ynet analyst Ron Ben Yishai, “Sinwar wants to spark a religious war, it’s time to remove him from the scene.”
Political journalist Attila Somfalvi remarked on Twitter, “Sinwar should be on target some time very soon, that much is clear. But it is depressing to think that he could have ended his life in an Israeli prison.”
There are other observers, though, who acknowledge that killing Sinwar will not be a silver bullet to end Israel’s security challenges; it would merely quench the public thirst for revenge.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post yesterday, Herb Keinon cautioned that Palestinian resistance factions should be taken seriously in their stated intent of launching rockets against Tel Aviv and, according to sources at Al-Mayadeen, a possible return to “explosive operations” — suicide bombings — in Israeli cities.
“The cowardly Israeli occupation’s threats of the possible assassination of Yahya Sinwar or any of the resistance leaders are an indication of an earthquake in the region and an unprecedented response,” said the spokesman of the Hamas military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, on Saturday. “We will bring about a new catastrophic chapter in the Zionist regime’s history.”
This may entail increasingly sophisticated use of drones by resistance factions. The PIJ announced details of a new drone on this year’s International Quds Day, the locally-made “Jenin”.
Israel has a history of killing its opponents, within occupied-Palestine and abroad. Assassinations became common after the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 and were sanctioned by the Israeli Supreme Court following the 2006 ruling in the Targeted Killing case, which reversed a 2002 decision that initially deemed the policy “non-justiciable”.
However, while Israel has the means to kill Palestinian resistance leaders it may not have the political will. It knows that such killings have a limited effect on ending political violence. The 2004 assassination of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as he left a local mosque in his wheelchair, for example, certainly didn’t end Israel’s security concerns.
In neighbouring Lebanon, Israel’s assassination of the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Sayyid Abbas Al-Musawi, was counter-productive, as he was succeeded by his “more charismatic and capable” protégé, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. The repercussions of this were felt beyond Israel with the 1992 Israel Embassy attack in Argentina, while the movement under Nasrallah’s leadership has become more powerful than ever; it is known as the world’s most heavily armed non-state actor, and so remains a serious threat to Israel.
Over the past two months, 19 Israelis have died in low-level operations carried out by Palestinians, including some citizens of Israel. The failure of the state to deter and prevent such attacks has illustrated the desperation and frustration felt by Tel Aviv in the handling of this security issue. Nothing else explains the serious consideration being given to a return to the assassination policy while ignoring the frequent extrajudicial killings of Palestinians by Israeli settlers and security forces, as well as the aggression and provocation against Al-Aqsa Mosque in recent weeks.
Israel should be prepared for an unprecedented armed response to any targeted killings of Palestinian leaders. Such a response will not be limited to the Gaza Strip or parts of the occupied-West Bank.
“Sinwar is not the worst of enemies,” opined Gideon Levy in Haaretz. “His successor will be worse. Sinwar will also not be the first Yahya of Hamas that Israel eliminates to no avail. The removal of Yahya Ayyash, his predecessor, didn’t give Israel anything but a wave of suicide bombings in which 60 Israelis were killed.”
Targeted killings may offer a short-term tactical result but will not solve Israel’s evolving security challenges which must be contextualised in the face of continued illegal settlement expansion and occupation. Israel knows that killing resistance leaders won’t kill the will or the legitimate right to resist its military occupation.