In Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich,” a team of Mossad assassins is sent to Europe to exact revenge for the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, in which gunmen from the Palestinian Black September group murdered 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team. One by one, using explosives, pistols and poison, the Israeli operatives kill the Palestinian officials allegedly responsible for planning the Olympic massacre. In the end, however, there is no closure; the dead on both sides simply are added to the grim human toll of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The same futile drama is playing out again. As Israel’s ground war in Hamas-run Gaza enters its second month, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the country’s intelligence services to launch a parallel assassination campaign targeting Hamas leaders wherever in the world they can be found.
“The cabinet has set us a goal. . . to eliminate Hamas,” Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, announced in a recording aired this past Sunday on Kan, Israel’s state-run broadcaster. “This is our Munich. We will do this everywhere — in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar. It will take a few years, but we will be there to do it.”
Netanyahu, under heavy criticism for failing to prevent Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of more than 1,200 people and its seizure of 240 hostages, apparently believes that in addition to ground war in Gaza, the targeted killings of Hamas leaders will help him fulfill his vow to annihilate the Palestinian terror group once and for all and salvage his battered legacy.
If history is any guide, all Netanyahu will achieve is an increase in the body count on both sides of the conflict.
Ever since Israel was founded in 1948, most Israeli leaders have tried—and failed—to extinguish the idea of Palestinian nationalism. It was Prime Minister Golda Meir who famously declared in 1976, “There is no Palestinian people.” In 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, a green light to invade Lebanon in order to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization and thereby strengthen Israel’s control over the West Bank. Nearly 18,000 Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians died in that war, according to Lebanon’s independent An Nahar newspaper, the most respected news outlet in the Arab World. Though bloodied, the PLO survived by decamping to Tunis. The Israelis not only failed to destroy the PLO; their invasion spawned the birth of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia which allied itself with the Palestinian cause. Over the next 18 years, Hezbollah fighters killed hundreds of Israeli occupation troops, eventually forcing them to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000. In 2006, after a deadly Hezbollah raid across Israel’s northern border, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to war determined to destroy the group. That war claimed another 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis lives. But Hezbollah lives on today, firing missiles into northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas.
It remains to be seen how successful Netanyahu will be in decapitating Hamas, the radical Islamists who appear to have co opted Palestinians’ long yearning to be free of Israeli domination.
Israel claims to have killed several thousand Hamas fighters in its Gaza operation so far, including five of the group’s mid-level commanders. They say they’re also closing in on Yahya Sinwar, the group’s top leader in Gaza, who is believed to be hiding in a tunnel somewhere under the southern Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, the top Hamas political leaders, led by Ismail Haniyeh, are based in Qatar’s capital, Doha, where they’re surrounded by an inner circle of Hamas security personnel trained by Iran’s Quds Force and an outer perimeter of armed Qatari guards, Israeli sources say. And both Hamas and Qatari intelligence operatives will be closely watching the tiny Persian Gulf emirate’s airports, harbors and coastline for infiltrating Mossad assassins. Similar security precautions surround Hamas representatives in Turkey and Lebanon.
Even if it succeeds in penetrating the group’s security rings, Israel will not be free of Hamas, close observers say.
“It's a big leap, going from…where they're less of a threat to you, to absolute eradication,” CIA ops veteran Douglas London said on the SpyTalk podcast last week. “And…as long as it has popular support within the Palestinian territories—and it certainly does—as long as it has external support materially and financially from the likes of Iran, it might be too ambitious and it might be setting your expectations such that you're doomed to fail no matter how far you get along.”
“I think we have reached a moment when the Israeli authorities will have to define more clearly what their final objective is,” French President Emmanuel Macron said at the United Nations COP28 Climate Change conference in Dubai last Saturday. “The total destruction of Hamas? Does anybody think that’s possible? If it’s that, the war will last ten years.”
To be sure, Israel’s war in Gaza is weakening Hamas, as will any successful assassinations of its leaders. But the history of this conflict teaches us that new leaders always will emerge to carry on the Palestinian struggle. And they’re likely to be more radical than their predecessors.
Hits and Misses
Netanyahu's record when it comes to targeted assassinations has been one of limited tactical successes, followed by strategic failure.
During his 14 years as prime minister, Netanyahu has ordered the Mossad to carry out a campaign of sabotage against Iranian nuclear facilities and missile factories, as well as targeted assassinations that have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists and wounded one other. These attacks, all aimed at preventing Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, have slowed down the nuclear program, but they have never persuaded the Iranians to abandon it. And today, thanks to Netanyahu’s success in convincing President Donald Trump to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran today is widely regarded as a nuclear threshold state, meaning that if it chooses, it can produce enough bomb-grade nuclear fuel to develop a nuclear weapon in a short amount of time.
Years ago, Netanyahu also spectacularly mismanaged the fallout of a botched assassination attempt in Jordan against a Hamas leader, resulting in damage to Israel that continues to this day.
In 1997, he sent a team of Mossad assassins posing as Canadian tourists to Amman, Jordan to kill Khaled Meshal, chairman of Hamas’ politburo. As Mashal entered his office there, two Mossad agents came up behind him, sprayed a powerful poison into his ear, and fled. Mashal’s Jordanian bodyguards managed to chase down and capture the assailants. Meanwhile, Mashal began vomiting and was rushed to a hospital. As his condition deteriorated, doctors determined he had been poisoned.
An angry King Hussein, fearing Mashal’s death would spark riots by Jordan’s majority Palestinian population, contacted Netanyahu, demanding an antidote to the poison. Netanyahu refused. As Mashal fell into a coma, the Jordanian monarch threatened to abrogate Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel if the Hamas leader died. At that point, President Bill Clinton weighed in and forced Netanyahu to turn over the antidote, which saved Mashal’s life.
But Hussein made the repatriation of the Mossad’s would-be assassins conditional on Israel’s release from prison of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic Gaza imam who had founded Hamas and who was serving a life sentence for ordering the killings of Palestinian collaborators. Netanyahu complied, setting Yassin free. The entire episode, from the botched Mashal assassination attempt to Yassin’s release, proved highly embarrassing for Netanyahu and the Mossad.
But the story doesn’t end there. During the second intifada in 2004, Yassin ordered a series of Hamas suicide bombings that killed scores of Israeli civilians, marking the 67-year-old cleric for assassination. As Yassin’s two bodyguards wheeled him out of a Gaza mosque after morning prayers, an Israeli AH-60 Apache helicopter fired a Hellfire missile, instantly killing them all, as well as nine bystanders.
In his monumental 2018 book, “Rise And Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” author and New York Times correspondent Ronen Bergman notes that Yassin’s assassination led to a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. But more importantly, Bergman adds, the killings also paved the way for Iran, Israel's most dangerous enemy, to become Hamas’ principal financier, arms supplier and military trainer.
“Yassin strongly opposed any cooperation or ties with Iran, and he imposed his view on the organization,” Bergman wrote. His assassination “effectively removed all of the restrictions he had placed on relations with Iran.” After Yassin’s death, the leadership of Hamas shifted from Gaza to the then-Damascus-based Mashal, who informed Tehran that “Hamas was now ready to receive any and all assistance from them,” Bergman wrote, adding: “The Iranians began to send missile parts to the Gaza Strip in an effort to increase the range and lethality of the organization’s arsenal. Instructors from the Revolutionary Guard came to Gaza as well.”
Israeli analysts attribute the horrifying success of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack to a combination of the training and weapons its fighters received from Iran and the failure of many Israeli security officials to take seriously Hamas’ military prowess. These analysts also cite Netanyahu’s divide-and-rule policy, which undermined the powers of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank despite its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, Netanyahu allowed millions of dollars in Qatari aid to flow into Gaza, relieving Israel, the enclave’s de facto occupying power, of a major financial burden.
In his dealings with the United States, Western Europe and moderate Arab countries, Netanyahu cynically blamed a powerless and corrupt Palestinian Authority that couldn’t deliver on any peace agreement, and an irredentist Hamas committed to Israel’s destruction, for the absence of any peace process, arguing Israel had no credible Palestinian partner for peace. Meanwhile, his ultra-right-wing government moved ahead with the expansion of Jewish settlements and confiscations of Palestinian lands in its de facto annexation of the West Bank. And the so-called Abraham Accords, the peace treaties Israel had signed in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, convinced Netanyahu he was right that peace with the wider Arab world was possible without a settlement of the Palestinian conflict.
That turned out to be a profound miscalculation. Now that Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack has taught Israel the enormous costs of that political fantasy, Netanyahu faces a crippling credibility gap as he tries to use the war against Hamas to deflect attention from his policy blunders and save his political career.
But recent polls and Netanyahu’s sour encounters with the Israeli public suggest he faces what appears to be insurmountable opposition. In a tense meeting with Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet on Tuesday, a group of Israeli hostages who were released in a prisoner swap with Hamas last week, plus relatives of the 138 hostages still being held in Gaza, accused the prime minister of prioritizing his political survival over efforts to win the release of the remaining hostages.
Netanyahu defended the government's efforts, insisting, “What I’m saying are clear facts. I’m telling you things; I respect you too much. I have heard you, the stirring of your hearts,” the Times of Israel reported him saying. Still, some relatives of the hostages accused Netanyahu of lying and screamed at him to resign.
Public opinion surveys show that sentiment extends far beyond the former hostages and relatives of those still being held in Gaza.
A recent poll by researchers at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University showed that fewer than 4 percent of Israelis trust Netanayhu as the most reliable source of information regarding the war against Hamas.
In a poll by Israel’s Channel 13 published late last month, three quarters of Israelis said they want Netanyahu to resign sometime during the war or after it. Nearly 30 percent would like him to step down right now. In a separate poll from mid-October by A-Chord, a social psychology institute affiliated with Hebrew University, nearly six-in-ten voters from his own Likud party want him to resign.
The methods used by Mossad and Shin Bet, such as targeted killings, are normally classified and not a subject that officials discuss publicly. So Bar’s announcement of a global assassination campaign against Hamas leaders underscores just how desperate Netanyahu is to stay in office.
In addition to what many Israelis believe will be an official inquiry into his government’s failure to prevent Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, Netahyanhu also is facing three corruption charges. If convicted, he could spend years behind bars. Remaining in office is the only sure way he can stay out of prison.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s relations with President Joe Biden are beginning to fray over the Biden administration’s growing criticism of the enormous civilian casualty toll and physical damage that Israel’s retaliatory bombing and ground invasion of Gaza have caused.
On Wednesday, Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry said that 16,248 Gazans, the majority of them women and children, have been killed and another 42,000 have been wounded so far. Video from independent Western news media show entire neighborhoods in Gaza City and its urbanized surroundings in the northern Gaza Strip reduced to rubble.
As Israeli forces now battle Hamas fighters in the southern Gaza Strip, Biden has told Netanyahu in phone conversations that Israel cannot operate as brutally in the south as it has in the north, where its offensive has spawned a humanitarian disaster and generated rising tide of accusations, not just in the Arab world but abroad, that Israel is committing “genocide” against the Palestinians.
These officials said the Israeli leader was “receptive” to Biden’s concerns. But Netanyahu has reneged on any assurances of throttling back the ground war. Reports Wednesday from Khan Younis, the largest city in the southern Gaza Strip, told of relentless Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardments as ground troops engaged in fierce house-to-house combat with Hamas fighters. Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry said Thursday that 350 people had been killed there in the past 24 hours.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu shifted his narrative to placate his domestic critics, saying Israel’s intense bombardment of Gaza was aimed at winning the release of the remaining hostages. "The only way to bring home the rest of the hostages is through massive military force in Gaza, and that’s what we are doing," he asserted.
Then, clearly worried about losing U.S. support for the Israeli war effort, Netanyahu added this Orwellian twist:
"I say to our friends who call for a short war, the only way for the war to end quickly is by applying sheer force. So I say stand with us. Stand with Israel. Stand with civilization.”
This article by Jonathan Broder originally appeared on Spytalk.co.