Resuming assassinations does not restore Israel deterrence

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  May 15, 2023

Once again, the Israeli army reverts to implementing its bloody assassination policy in the heart of the Gaza Strip, after a break of nearly nine months. They are fully aware that such a strategy will only further complicate the security situation in the Occupied Territories beyond its current state. What once seemed effective in previous years, namely the assassination policy against Resistance leaders, may no longer be fruitful today, after the passing of all these years.

Therefore, it was not surprising when the Israeli Air Force launched a large-scale assassination operation in various parts of the Gaza Strip. This operation targeted three of the senior leaders of the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement, alongside ten civilians, including children and women, signaling a return to the assassination policy.

Perhaps the reason why the assassination was not surprising is that the aircraft had not left Gaza’s airspace for several days, in all its forms: military, reconnaissance and spy. Besides, there was a prevailing Israeli feeling that their deterrence had suffered significant damage, and an operation was needed to restore its eroded image. The ongoing resistance in the West Bank, along with the missile salvos that targeted the Israeli home front from the Gazan, Lebanese and Syrian borders weeks ago, followed by Israel’s retreat as seen in the Al-Aqsa Mosque when the worshipers and the steadfast held their ground, all contributed to this feeling.

The assassination of military leaders in Gaza brought to mind the most significant and dangerous assassinations against Palestinians, both in the past and recently. This comes after the Israeli discussion around resuming this bloody policy. While some mobilize this slogan as part of their internal party bargaining, others believe that assassinations are a feasible and practical option.

The bitter Israeli reality is that Gaza has changed, and things differ from previous situations. There are considerable doubts that assassinations are effective in preserving Israeli security. They may cause more harm than benefit. It is true that the Resistance will feel the loss of their martyred leaders, but their expected response will come in a few days, perhaps in hours, as was the case when their rockets targeted most parts of Israeli cities.

Simultaneously, the policy of assassinations has proven to be ineffective in completely eliminating the Resistance. Instead, it aims to appease the terrified Israelis, demonstrating that security remains active. However, the result is that assassinations maintain an escalating level of hatred and fear and, at the same time, they fail to quash the Palestinian people’s aspirations for liberation and emancipation from occupation. Assassinations are simply a ‘soothing balm’ for fearful Israelis, providing further evidence that their security system is still functioning as expected.

Despite what Israel presents as justifications for these assassinations, they do not hide the continuous failures of its security establishment on all fronts, in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria. This raises an Israeli question: What will we gain if we dig hundreds of graves for those we assassinate in these operations?

There is no doubt that these assassinations are part of mafia-like behaviour and gang activities. At their height, Israelis overlook the fact that their conflict with the Palestinians has both political and military aspects, and should proceed according to a political agenda. However, they ignore all of this, and the result is that the culture of assassinations prevails.

Despite the Israeli consensus on this bloody policy, under the pretext that it aims to thwart or eliminate armed operations, the stark truth is that it succeeds in establishing a balance of deterrence and threat with the occupation army, the largest and most dangerous in the region, thereby leading it into a significant failure.

The recent series of assassinations carried out by the Israeli Air Force over Gaza have brought back to mind the policy of targeted killings that it has consistently implemented over the past few decades. Nevertheless, Palestinian armed cadres do not disappear; what occurs is merely a process of replacement. New leaders may emerge, potentially even tougher and more relentless against the occupation.

Although the assassinated members of the Palestinian cadre leave this world, resistance operations do not stop against the occupation. They persist even after their departure. Since that time, Israeli Prime Ministers have consistently issued assassination orders against hundreds of armed individuals. However, these assassinations ultimately have not succeeded in stopping armed attacks, raising questions about their efficacy in confronting Palestinian armed organizations that immediately succeed in the replacement of their leadership.

While assassinations may sometimes be driven by the intention to reduce armed attacks and, at other times, by a desire for revenge, the decision to assassinate generally does not lead to preventing the execution of more such operations. Perhaps it is intended to settle Israel’s score with one militant or another. These possibilities are gleaned from confessions made by dozens of Israeli officials involved in the assassination files, ranging from decision-makers and planners to the executors themselves, and those who press the execution button.

One of the ironies is that Israel is one of the few countries in the world where the Prime Minister can issue a decision to kill a person without needing to consult with any other party or have anyone else approve the decision, even in the post-execution phase. This is despite Israeli forums acknowledging the difficulty of predicting the long-term consequences of assassinating this or that Palestinian, as most of those who are assassinated are described as time bombs ready to explode at any moment, and their continued existence poses a threat to the occupation. Therefore, the only solution is to eliminate the threat they represent, even if the cost is so high.

At the same time, the assassinations carried out by the occupation in Palestinian territories, which target mid-level field members of Palestinian organizations, impact their operational leadership capabilities. However, the emergence of successors to the Resistance leaders represents a bad omen for the occupation, as they tend to be more determined. This is despite the underlying idea adopted by those who advocate the assassination method is that eliminating this or that leader will inevitably lead to a halt in operations and counter-attacks.

Whilst the physical act of assassinating a Palestinian may seem a straightforward task for the Israeli military, assassinating readiness, motivation and ideology is another matter. This idea is deeply ingrained among the millions who adopt these ideologies, as they embrace them based on personal convictions. Their assassination does not end these ideologies, meaning that assassinations do not solve all of Israel’s security problems, nor do they eradicate entirely the targeted Palestinian organization.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza