Israel’s killing of three top Hamas commanders in Gaza today marks the most definitive strike against the Islamist movement’s leadership in its six-week campaign. It comes just a day after a strike on the leader of its military wing, Muhammed al-Deif, whose status remains unclear.
But even as the Palestinian death toll rises above 2,000, Hamas appears unlikely to abandon its most fundamental demand: end the siege on Gaza.
There's "a short-term psychological impact on the morale of its fighters, but in the long run it doesn’t affect Hamas,” says political scientist Mkhaimer Abu Saada of Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “It doesn’t satisfy the [movement’s] political ambitions to stop the war now without achieving at least the lifting of the siege and the opening of border crossings.”
The Islamist group failed to win that concession in Cairo talks, where Israel and Egypt both opposed any move that would allow Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities, which include a robust rocket arsenal and underground facilities. Now Hamas appears to be gambling on its ability to sustain a longer fight than in its last two conflicts with Israel.
After the Cairo talks collapsed on Tuesday, Gaza militants fired 175 rockets at Israel on Wednesday, the second-heaviest day of rocket fire since hostilities began July 8. Israel meanwhile has launched more than 150 air strikes.
Some Israeli analysts see the military’s decision to target top commanders as a shift in strategy. While Hamas rockets and tunnels were destroyed earlier, now the intent seems to be going after the group's human infrastructure.
“You want attrition? You are welcome.... Our firepower, intelligence, our capability to sustain more days are much bigger than yours,” said Amos Yadlin, former head of intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in a conference call with foreign reporters. “This is the strategy, this is what you’ve seen in the past few days.”
Yesterday Israel launched an airstrike to kill Mr. Deif, who took over as the leader of Hamas’s Al Qassam Brigades after Israel killed his predecessor, Ahmed Jabaari, in 2012. It’s unclear whether the strike hit Deif, who has escaped five Israeli attempts on his life, but his wife and two children were killed in the attack. In the past, Hamas has replenished its ranks after Israeli air strikes on its leaders.
Deif’s killing would mark a more significant blow to Hamas. But those confirmed killed today have been involved in numerous attacks against Israelis, mostly soldiers, according to an IDF statement.
Raed Al-Attar, Mohammed Abu Shamelah, and Mohammed Barhoum were commanders in the Rafah area of Gaza, one of the Al Qaddam Brigade's five military districts.
Mr. Barhoum was a senior operative involved in weapons smuggling and fundraising abroad, including in Syria and Libya, according to the IDF. Mr. Attar was involved in the kidnapping and captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held for five years after being taken in a cross-border raid in 2006, as well as firing rockets, smuggling weapons into Gaza, and building tunnels along the Israeli and Sinai borders with Gaza, the IDF statement said.
His unit was also allegedly responsible for the killing of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body Hamas may be holding as a bargaining chip.
The IDF identified Mr. Abu Shamelah as “the most senior Hamas terror operative” in the southern Gaza Strip, and said he was responsible for a tunnel attack near the Israeli kibbutz of Sufa last month. That attack jolted Israel and built support for a ground operation in which some 64 Israeli soldiers have died, more than six times the total the last time Israel went into Gaza.
Support for Hamas
More than 17,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged and 400,000 people of Gaza’s 1.8 million residents have been displaced due to recent Israeli air strikes, according to the United Nations.
Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence led to fighting that pushed 200,000 Palestinian refugees into Gaza, more than tripling the population of the strip. Egypt, which maintained military rule over the Strip from 1948 to 1967, did little to develop the infrastructure needed to support the refugees. It was from this neglected territory that Yasser Arafat rose to become the leader of the Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
While Mr. Arafat’s Fatah party has since renounced violence, Hamas is championed by many Palestinians as carrying on what they see as the only effective method of pressuring Israel.
Despite Israel killing at least three commanders of the Al Qassam Brigades in the past decade as well as numerous other leaders and weapons specialists, the organization proved far stronger militarily in this conflict than ever before. It has made use of longer-range rockets, a vast tunnel system that enabled at least half a dozen war-time raids into Israel – something even Hezbollah hasn’t pulled off – and enough firepower to cause many international airlines to shut down all flights into Israel for 36 hours.
Though Hamas’s popularity was at a nadir heading into this latest conflict, its achievements have undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s insistence on nonviolence and negotiations. Last month, a regular poll found that Hamas now enjoys more support than Fatah even in the West Bank for the first time in years.
Though some in Gaza oppose Hamas’s decision to engage in such a damaging conflict with Israel at this time, Palestinian civilians and leaders alike are largely behind the demand to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza and control over its borders, ports, and air space.