Israel knows that airstrikes alone cannot help it win the war against Hamas. To hinder their enemy, Israeli forces must kill or capture the group’s leaders, both in Gaza – where they hide in complex tunnel complexes – and elsewhere, in other Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar. But the costs of such dangerous operations will be high – and could easily backfire.

Israel’s current priority is to target Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip. The hit list includes Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza; Mohammed Deif, the head of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades; and Deif’s deputy, Marwan Issa. Over the weekend, the IDF bombed Khan Yunis, a southern Gaza town where these Hamas leaders are believed to be located. Israel’s soldiers will attempt to enter the city on foot to kill or capture these men and free hostages.

Hamas leaders in Gaza are not the only target

The Israeli government views the targeted killing or capture of Hamas leaders as essential to achieving its main goal: the destruction of Hamas. Israel is known for carrying out such missions. As part of Operation Wrath of God, Israel targeted the Palestinian terrorists involved in the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Israeli forces and intelligence services have killed terrorists who were involved in planning or carrying out attacks in Israel or were about to carry out attacks. They also assassinated leaders and commanders of various terrorist organizations, including Hamas founders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, both of whom were killed in 2004.

Hamas leaders in Gaza are not the only target. Israel is also reportedly planning to assassinate senior officials of the group living in Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar. Such operations are notoriously difficult, particularly when conducted in enemy states. An earlier attempt by Israel’s Mossad to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997 failed, sparking a major diplomatic crisis with Jordan, with which Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Jordan’s King Hussein saw this as an act of humiliation and disrespect on Israel’s part. Israel had to provide an antidote to the poison that was sprayed on Mashaal to prevent harm to the Mossad agents captured by Jordan. The advantage was that Jordan expelled Mashaal and other Hamas terrorists and has not allowed the organization to operate in Jordan since.

There is another risk in operations against Hamas officials living outside the Gaza Strip: negotiations could be undermined and the lives of hostages could be at risk. Qatar, where Mashaal – Israel’s main target outside Gaza – lives, has played a crucial role in the release of hostages. Despite Hamas’s long-standing support and financing, Israel does not want to jeopardize relations with Qatar at this point. For now, Mashaal is safe, but it won’t always be that way.

Given the trauma and fear caused by the horrific October 7 attacks, the policy of targeted killings will be popular among Israelis. The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, Ronen Bar, reportedly said that Israel is “determined” to eliminate Hamas everywhere – in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Turkey and Qatar. “This is our Munich,” he said, adding that these operations could take several years to carry out but they would get done.

Israel should be realistic about what such killings will achieve. Aside from damaging Israel’s diplomatic relations with countries where assassinations take place (particularly when the wrong person was killed, as happened in Norway in 1973), some of them also resulted in revenge attacks that resulted in the deaths of civilians – as reported In retaliation, Islamic Jihad attacked the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 Israelis and Argentines. Another attack on a Jewish community building, also in Buenos Aires, killed 85 people. In addition, al-Musawi was replaced by Hassan Nasrallah, under whose leadership Hezbollah has transformed from a small terrorist organization into a powerful paramilitary group that poses a significant threat to Israel.

Such unintended consequences and doubts about the effectiveness of killing Hamas leaders outside Gaza mean that not everyone within the Israeli establishment supports these dangerous operations. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi is one of the prominent voices warning that it is not advisable to eliminate opponents in this way. As Ronen Bergman put it in his book Rise and kill first Regarding Israel’s targeted assassinations, killing Israel’s enemies could lead to “tactical successes but also catastrophic strategic failures.”

This article was originally published on The audience‘s UK website.

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