The assassination of Hamas’ military chief Ahmed al-Jabari in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Air Force calls to mind the saying, “when you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” While Israel indeed acted with remarkable precision based on reliable intelligence, the question remains: Did Israel use its hammer — an instrument it wields with virtuosity — prematurely in this case, to deal with a dilemma that perhaps called for different treatment?
While Israel has an abundant history of liquidating enemy leaders by pin-point attacks, for years it has refrained from doing it. Somehow, it seems no surprise that the assassination of Jabari comes just months before a general election in Israel, and at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being criticized for not taking steps to stop the ongoing firing of rockets at Israeli communities from Gaza.
In the past, Israel has frequently used assassination as a weapon in order to avoid launching large-scale military operations. This tactic has had mixed results from Israel’s point of view, sometimes achieving its goal and sometimes not.
Most notably — and the comparison most commonly made by Israeli leaders these days — in 2000 the second intifada broke out and Hamas launched a bloody wave of suicide bombings in Israel, killing hundreds of people and wounding thousands. For years suicide terror was believed to be unstoppable. This “smart bomb for poor people” exacted a terrible price on Israeli civilians and Israel’s economy.
The intelligence community responded by devoting most of their resources to “Operation Anemone Picking,” whose objective was to preempt terror attacks and kill their perpetrators.
Assassination became the method of choice, in effect putting a price tag on suicide terrorism, to be paid by those who recruited and dispatched the human bombs. The intelligence community devised a highly complex system, the details of which remain secret today, for carrying out the assassinations. Using advanced technological integration of information from multiple channels, an intelligence analysis could be formed in real time and conveyed to an aircraft or a commando team assigned to implement the hit.
The assassination of the heads of Hamas — the founder and leader of the movement, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi — were also a success for the Israeli army, and led the movement to seek a cease-fire.
However, one cannot conclude from the success of Operation Anemone Picking, and others like it, that the killing of Jabari will yield the same results. The situation today is not the same.
From the standpoint of vengeance, Jabari deserved to die. He was directly responsible for the deaths of many Israelis and for the abduction of the soldier Gilad Shalit (in exchange for whose release Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners). But does Jabari’s removal from the scene make it any safer?
According to data supplied by the Shin Bet intelligence service, in the first 10 months of 2012 there was a 43 percent increase in the number of missiles fired at Israel compared to 2011. The aim of the elimination of Jabari and his comrades on Wednesday, according to Israeli sources, was to once again force Hamas to request an extended cease-fire.
While this is a legitimate goal, conditions today are radically different from what they were in 2004. Hamas today is a sovereign power in the Gaza Strip, and with the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it now enjoys the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo.
That renders Hamas’ chances of bending because of the assassination of one of its leaders very small. Evidence of this can be discerned in the huge barrage of rocket fire that Hamas launched against Israel after the hit on Jabari. Whereas in all previous missile attacks there were no fatal casualties, three Israelis were killed on the day after the killing, and alarms went off for the first time in Tel Aviv and other cities that were never threatened by Hamas rockets in the past.
Moreover, during Operation Anemone Picking, assassination was used as a last resort.
During that period an ethical code for implementing targeted killings was drawn up in Israel. One of the code’s main principles was proportionality. This venerable tenet, found in the penal codes of every country, touches not only touch on law and morality, but also on the impact of an offensive on the other side, the one being punished.
If, for the sake of argument, we refer to targeted assassinations as the harshest punishment in a penal “toolbox,” then, as in every penal system in the world, using it too often will not serve well as deterrence. In civil offenses, if you give equal punishment for theft and for murder, a bank robber will be taking the same risk whether or not he kills the security guard, so why not start off by killing him and increasing the probability of a successful robbery?
The result of disproportional punishment is anarchy. In our case, if the punishment applied to Hamas for suicide bombings in which dozens of Israelis are killed is identical to that imposed for sporadic rocket fire in which no lives are lost, the “logical” conclusion would be that there is nothing to argue against the use of suicide bombings.
Some would say that it should make them stop all anti-Israeli activity, but to assume Palestinians will shut all resistance down is naïve.
Israel has the right to defend itself, especially against the huge numbers of Iranian long-range missiles pouring into the Gaza Strip from Iran via Sudan and Egypt. However, wielding the heaviest hammer — assassinations — against Hamas could lead to further deterioration instead of amelioration.
Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for security and intelligence affairs at Yediot Aharonot and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.