Israeli assassination in Gaza risks wider conflict

If the Palestinian group Hamas makes good on promises of revenge for the killing today of its top military chief, the situation could deteriorate. 

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media at Hakirya a military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 14. Israel's prime minister says the military is prepared to broaden its operation against Hamas targets in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a bold move today with the assassination of a top Hamas military chief, whose attacks against the Jewish state makes him something of an Osama bin Laden for Israelis.

Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection campaign could be boosted by the attack on Ahmed al-Jaabri – particularly in southern Israel, where residents have been protesting the recent uptick in rocket attacks from Gaza. But if Hamas and its allies make good on promises of revenge, Israel could face serious repercussions ­– and find itself pulled into a wider conflagration, given the heightened instability of the region.

"The ball is in Hamas’s court now. I think Israel is satisfied with the killing of Jaabri, but if Hamas responds to the killing, I think Israel will widen its operation in Gaza," says Mukhaimer Abu Saada, professor of political science at Gaza's al-Azhar university.

The Israeli military justified the operation – called Pillar of Defense – by saying that Gaza has become a forward base for Iran, which backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The number of rockets fired from Gaza this year already exceeds the total for last year, with a sharp rise in recent weeks, putting 1 million Israelis in danger. The killing of Mr. Jaabri, along with at least seven other Gazans in a round of air and naval strikes, comes days after Israel warned it may renew targeted assassinations against militants in Gaza.

Jaabri headed Hamas’s armed wing, known as Ezz al-Din al-Qassam, and is the most senior leader to be killed in a targeted assassination since Israel’s 2008-09 war with Hamas. It remains unclear whether Israel and Hamas are headed for a reprise, but both sides seem conscious that the stakes are higher now.

"I think Hamas leaders will think twice before they decide to target Israel because targeting Israel might mean the end of Hamas rule in Gaza," says Prof. Abu Saada.

Some Gazans have accused Israel of trying to derail the Palestinian bid to be recognized as a state at the United Nations ­– an issue that will be put to a vote Nov. 29, the Palestinian leadership announced this week.


Jaabri was responsible for the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whose five-year captivity became something of a national cause until Netanyahu’s government secured his release last year. As such, Netanyahu may well hold up Jaabri’s assassination as proof of his determination and capability to keep Israel safe at a time of heightened insecurity.

But the attack also threatens to undermine Israel’s already tenuous relationship with Egypt under newly elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. Morsi tonight denounced Israel’s “wanton aggression against Gaza,” recalled the Egyptian ambassador from Israel, and warned that Egyptians would not accept such an assault. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been under considerable pressure from the Egyptian public to revisit the country’s historic peace deal with Israel, potentially unraveling an alliance key to Israel’s security as well as US interests in the region.

Mahmoud Hussein, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, said in an interview prior to Jaabri’s assassination that Egypt is the only party to the peace treaty that has upheld its obligations.

The US didn’t keep its promise of creating a Palestinian state, while the Israelis didn’t respect Palestinian rights, he told The Christian Science Monitor last week. He specifically criticized Israeli attacks against Palestinians.

“There is no treaty because there’s no respect for the treaty,” he said, sitting behind his polished desk at the Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo. “When the Egyptian people see that Egypt is the only party that respects the treaty, they will want to revisit it.”

‘Every Israeli is our target’

Jaabari and his aide, Abu Hamed Hams, were killed instantly when their car was struck by a rocket fired from an Israeli drone in Gaza City. The attack sparked protests in Gaza as thousands of Qassam operatives fired guns into the air, calling for revenge.

"Every Israeli is our target now," al-Qassam said in a press statement. "Israel will pay a heavy price for this crime."

Abu Saada, the professor, says that al-Qassam possesses thousands of Russian-made Grad rockets that can reach Tel Aviv ­– Israel’s largest city and home to its main airport.

"If they use these rockets, Israel will suffer because it will not be able to stop every rocket fired from Gaza. The situation may snowball; this depends on how Hamas is going to respond."

Hamas also possess Iranian Fajr missiles, which have a range of 75 km (about 47 miles), putting Tel Aviv as well as some suburbs within reach. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared tonight that part of the operation targeted stockpiles of Fajr missiles, at least some of which were stored underground.

Hamas is now paying the price for the acts of other factions that have been firing rockets and targeting Israeli forces along the borders, says Abu Saada.

"It's well known that the Islamic Jihad, the Salafists, and the leftist groups are the ones who have been targeting Israel, not the ruling Hamas party. But Israel holds Hamas responsible for the attacks since it’s the party who is in power."

What next?

The recent round of violence erupted when Palestinian militants belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) organization targeted an Israeli military vehicle along the Gaza-Israeli borders, killing one soldier.

Israel responded with aerial bombings, killing seven Palestinians, including gunmen, and wounding scores of others.

After the assassination of Jaabri, the Israeli army announced that this killing is just the beginning of a broader military operation.

The Palestinian response may also widen, with Hamas vowing that Israel’s strike had "opened doors of hell.”

In Lebanon, there is concern that the heightened tensions could provoke Palestinian militants in refugee camps to launch attacks into northern Israel as they did during the 2008-09 Gaza war.

“There is a risk,” says Milos Strugar, a long-time official with UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping body in southern Lebanon. “So we have to act … we are in close contact with [the Lebanese Army].”

Defense Minister Barak said Israel does not want war, but seemed to acknowledge that today's strikes could lead to greater confrontation. "We are still at the beginning of the event, not at the end, and we expect some complicated tests ahead," he said. "I call upon the leaders of the region to act with composure, in order to promote stability and restore quiet so that we are not – heaven forbid – dragged into further deterioration."

* Ms. Bryant also contributed reporting from Cairo.

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