Targeted killings as a ‘divide and rule’ tactic: Part 2

Alex continues his assessment of Israel’s targeted killings policy…

Strategy is a comprehensive long-ranging plan to promote interests in the context of conflict. In theory, strategy “requires both a policy to define its purpose and tactics to make it happen” and thus provides “the bridge between political goals and military means.” Tactics, on the other hand, is defined by Clausewitz as “the sciences and art of organizing a military force, and the techniques for combining and using weapons and military units to engage and defeat an enemy.”

Targeted Killings (TKs) could therefore either be considered a tactic or strategy, depending on whether they are utilized occasionally or consistently over a fixed period. In assessing the strategic value of TKs the Realist framework postulates that the issue in question is not whether extra-judicial killings are morally legitimate, compliant with international law and/or beneficial for the peace process; but rather, when and how the use of this method advances the interests of the Israeli government.

Good strategy should always be aimed at rational and attainable political objectives, meaning that TKs neither work on all occasions nor for all political purposes. “If the policy were to wholly destroy Hamas as a physical and ideological entity, a strategy of TK would likely be ineffective, as the policy would be simply unattainable and possibly irrational, in purely tactical and even technical terms.” Actually there are plausible reasons to believe that Israeli policy makers are quite accustomed to co-existing with Hamas. At the end of the day Israel‘s centre-right coalition needs the terrorist threat associated with Palestinian Islamists to justify its denial of advancing a two-state solution. Ever since 9/11 Israel policy makers should have realized that the nationalist-Islamist group is a lesser evil than globally operating Jihadist groups that could easily exploit the vacuum that would emerge if the leverage of Hamas diminished.

Under these circumstances, TKs have proven to be an incredibly useful tactic in promoting certain political priorities. They have certainly increased the popular support for Hamas, working against the interests of the Israeli government, insofar as it has put a strain on its security aparatus. This, however, is a loss that can be taken, given that, first, a strategy of decapitation serves Israel as a crucial tool to subdue Hamas in times of intensified conflicts; second, TK’s can also be used to provoke the Hamas in times when an escalation of the conflict is considered to be political advantageous. Polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of Israelis support the assassination of terror suspects, which explains why Israel’s government authorised TKs during elections, even though they inflicted significant damage on Israel’s reputation and the peace process. By bringing  justice to alleged terrorists, TKs help Israeli elites demonstrate their hardliner qualities; and distract from social and economic issues.

But most importantly TKs can be launched as a ‘divide and rule’ tactic to deal with the Palestinian resistance. Ever since the 1972 purchase doxycycline 100mg Munich massacre of Israel’s Olympia athletes, Mossad has systematically hunted and assassinated members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and yet initially refrained from targeting Hamas members. Ironically, Israeli occupation policy in the 1980s and 90s instead encouraged the rise of the Hamas, not least because it was thought that the spread of Islamic education and values could balance power against the socialist and secular-oriented PLO.

However, as the leverage of the group grew Israel began to adopt a more repressive attitude towards the Islamists and in the process encouraged Hamas to declare Jihad against the occupying power. It was not until 1994 that Hamas launched its first suicide attack against Israelis. And not until 1996 that Israel launched its first TK against a Hamas member. The killing of Yihya Ayash led to the collapse of a succesful ceasefire and unleashed numerous deadly suicide bombings. Given that Israel was holding an election in the same year it is likely the killing was partially ordered for domestic reasons: helping Shimon Peres to sharpen his low profile among hardliners. And even though Ayash’s death neither led to Peres’ re-election nor benefited the security of Israelis, the provocation of Hamas aided Israeli efforts to incite divisions between different Palestinian factions, thus undermining the PLO’s bargaining position. That is because the cease-fire that collapsed had been the product of an agreement between the Hamas and PLO. It was arranged in order to avoid threatening the Oslo agreement that had obliged Israel to redeploy some of its settlements in Palestinian territories.

With the assassination of Ayash, Israel disrupted the Hamas-PLO reconciliation and divided Palestinian society. While Hamas resumed its attacks on Israel to avenge the death of its member, the PLO appeared to be incapable of fulfilling its Oslo mandate of protecting Israeli citizens. Henceforth, Israel used the re-escalation of the conflict as justification to delay the redeployment of its settlements in the West Bank.

Nonetheless, not all of Israel‘s covert operations have been a success story. A famous case was the attempted killing of – current Hamas leader – Khaled Mashal, who during that time was chief of the group’s bureau in Jordan. The operation was authorized in 1997 in the wake of public pressure to avenge a wave of deadly suicide bombings. Ultimately, it became the greatest Mossad failure in history, as the agents who injected a slow-acting poison into Mashal ear were later captured by Jordanian authorities. Outraged by Israel‘s behaviour, King Hussein then threatened to nullify the Israel-Jordan peace treaty of 1994, eventually forcing Israel to forward the anti-poison and release numerous high-ranking Hamas prisoners.

In the end, the Netanyahu government was embarrassed both internationally and on the domestic front. The worst part of the whole affair was that Shaikh Yasin and many other high-profile Hamas members released from prison went on to help instigate the destabilizing insurgency in 2000.


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Alex Beck 8 Articles
Alex is a history student from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is of German-Iranian descent and has written about foreign policy analysis and strategic studies.

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