Since Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections we are witnessing a vindication and renewal of Israel's targeted assassination policy. Even before Hamas was "legalized" Israel used this technique to cause disarray within terrorist groups. It is now timelier than ever.
Historically, the U.S government never really approved Israel's policy of targeted killings, even when American citizens were victims of terrorist bombings. As Department of State Spokesman Richard Boucher articulates, "We [America] are against targeted killings. We're against the use of heavy weaponry in urban areas, even when it comes to people like Mohammed Deif, who have been responsible for the deaths of American citizens."
But if Hamas' attacks from Gaza were not enough, Hizbollah's opening of a second front war against Israel shows that America more than ever should back Israel on her endeavor to root out the terrorist elements wherever they may be found. The U. S. must begin to see Israel's war on Hamas as Washington views its own war against Former Government Officials (FGOs) from Saddam Hussein's Baath regime, as well as Washington's war against al-Qaeda terrorists. The bottom line is that fighting terrorism is useless unless the top leaders, planners and footsoldiers have been eliminated.
Even those Israelis who favored the Gaza pullout knew that many Palestinians would view the pullout as a strategic retreat and a victory for Hamas. The notion that "today we got Gaza and tomorrow will get Jerusalem and Tel Aviv" continues to thrive in Palestinian society. If Israel would respond immediately to every attack and rocket fired, regardless of Israeli casualties, true deterrence would be restored. The relative restraint shown by Israel over the past six years since the withdrawl from Lebanon has eroded the sense of cause and effect on the part of Israel's enemies, who lulled themselves, their populations and Israel as well into a perception that Israel was strictly reactive.
Targeting the foot soldiers of Hamas clearly shook members of Hamas, inspiring them to scamper underground. Until Israel targeted Hamas's spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin in September 2003, Hamas saw those 'minor targets' as warning shots. Targeting Yasin was the beginning of a whole new ball-game, then Hamas' spokesman Abdel-Aziz Rantisi who was also subsequently targeted exclaimed after Yasin's death that Israel had "opened the gates of hell". But after Yasin the policy took second place to continued strikes on ticking time bombs, terrorists on the move toward their targets.
What Hamas and Hizbullah must now realize is that foot soldiers are not the only targets anymore. The lack of stability within the PA, the increase in suicide bombings, and the massive rocket fire from both Gaza and Lebanon is bringing Israel closer to an all out war. The American road map to peace is hardly on anyone's agenda anymore. Israel's hesitation in gunning for the group's top leaders demonstrates how the Israeli security forces let outside foreign policy considerations (not wanting to anger the US, Europe, Egypt or Jordan) dictate how Israel should deal with terror. Conversely, if America would be satisfied with only the foot soldiers of al-Qaeda, the leaders would see themselves as indestructible because they are not the primary targets. Zarqawi would still be alive and directing his own bloody campaigns in Iraq.
Targeted killing of terrorist leaders is, by definition, effective. Well-planned targeted killing by Israeli security forces can certainly be a powerful tool for Israeli counter-terror. As analyst Gal Luft explains, "constant elimination of [terrorist] leaders leaves terrorist organizations in a state of confusion and disarray. Those next in line for succession take a long time to step into their predecessors' shoes. They know that by choosing to take the lead, they add their names to Israel's target list, where life is Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short." It is the same methodology the Bush Administration has been using in the war on terror.
But if Israel expects targeted killing to do more than scare Hamas operatives or disrupt the organization for a short time, Jerusalem will have to focus on the top radicals and strategic leaders who constitute the very nucleus of the Hamas movement. To be sure, attacking the lower and middle ranking radicals will keep Hamas on the defensive. Hamas's leaders like Mahmoud al-Zahar and Khaled Mashaal are safer now than the people they send out to the streets to blow themselves up. The religious and political immunity Yasin and Rantisi claimed to have is now gone. The U.S should realize that just as killing or arresting Usama bin Laden will be pivotal to weakening al-Qaeda, and just as Saddam's removal was necessary to create a new regime, killing Yasin and Rantisi undermined Hamas before and must be done again.
Asaf Romirowsky is a Campus Watch Associate Fellow for the Middle East Forum and the Israel Affairs fellow for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.