Israel's Failed Assassination Strategy

The assassinations of three top Hamas commanders today might make Israelis feel good, but it won't make them any safer. 

The longstanding Israeli strategy of killing top leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian resistance groups was manifest again early today when Israeli missiles struck and killed three senior commanders of the military wing of Hamas. Their deaths will no doubt bring joy to the hearts of many Israelis who think that only such decisive blows to Hamas' top leadership will ever bring the movement to its knees and ensure security from Hamas rocket attacks.

Any sense of satisfaction, however, is likely to be short-lived. The overwhelming lesson from the past half century of Israeli targeted assassinations is that they trigger exactly the opposite result of what was intended. Instead of making Palestinian militants cower and retreat before the military might of Israel, the deaths of their resistance leaders only push Palestinians toward actions that ensure the next conflict with Israel will be bloodier still.

Palestinians have responded to the loss of their militant leaders by developing much more secure, smaller and more secretive leadership structures that cannot be easily penetrated by Israeli intelligence agents. Groups such as Hamas have established more decentralized and localized operational units that continue to function in war or peace if the leadership is hit. More sophisticated command-and-control systems have evolved that don't rely on a single decision-maker. Support among the Palestinian community for the long-term struggle has increased. And the resistance itself has turned to technologies and strategies -- such as rockets and tunnel-building -- that are more deeply embedded in Palestinian communities than reliant on the skills or charisma of a handful of individual commanders.

The most compelling -- and ironic -- example of this is the current political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, who was himself the target of Israeli assassins who poisoned him in September 1997 in Amman, Jordan. A fast and sharp response by Jordan's King Hussein -- whose government had a peace agreement with Israel -- forced Israel to provide the antidote that saved Meshaal's life. Sympathy for Meshaal skyrocketed. He was able to work closely with growing, concentric circles of Hamas operatives across Palestinian areas and the entire region to increase the organization's capabilities vastly. In each of the last three short wars in Gaza, Israel has been forced to accept a cease-fire to stop hostilities. The man Israel tried to assassinate has fought them to a draw three times now.

Today's assassinations will make many Israelis feel better about fighting Hamas, but they will not make Israelis any safer. Hamas is not a rootless terrorist group like al-Qaeda, which has no real base of support in the community, and whose capabilities really can be degraded by the steady elimination of its leaders. Israel's killings of Palestinian, Egyptian, Lebanese and other Arab figures since the mid-1950s have led neither to the weakening of the target institutions (Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, the Palestine Liberation Organization) nor to a drop in Arab resistance to Israeli occupation.

The first such documented Israeli assassination was in July 1956: the killing of an Egyptian army officer in Gaza (!) who was recruiting Palestinians to carry out guerrilla raids in Israel. Almost 60 years and hundreds of killings later, Israeli assassins have failed to secure peace and calm with their deadly work. Every time a Palestinian leader is eliminated -- or innocent civilians are killed scores at a time -- hundreds if not thousands of young Palestinian men and women volunteer to join resistance movements such as Hamas. One would think the Israelis should have learned better by now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.