Israel has made something of a specialty of “targeted assassinations” that is to say sending hit teams to kill its enemies abroad in the evident belief that the best way to deal with Arab resistance movements is physically to eliminate their leaders. Over the past several decades, scores of Arab activists, intellectuals and scientists have perished in this way.
There seems little doubt that Israeli agents were responsible for the car-bomb assassination in Damascus on 12 February of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hizbullah commander.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office issued a lame denial, but the applause from Israeli ministers, the popping of champagne corks, and the jubilant reports in the Israeli press tell a different story. “The score has been settled,” said Israel’s YNetnews website, in a clear suggestion that the killing was a response to the humiliation Hizbullah inflicted on the IDF in the 2006 Lebanon war.
But is that all there was to it? Israel is well aware that such murders invariably provoke revenge killings, as Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary-general, was quick to warn. Speaking to a vast crowd of tens of thousands at Mughniyeh’s funeral in Beirut, he addressed Israel directly:
“You killed Imad outside the battleground. Our battle was inside the Lebanese territory. You crossed the borders. Zionists, if you want open war, let it be an open war anywhere.”
Such a response was entirely predictable and will no doubt result in attacks on Jewish targets. So it remains something of a mystery why Israel’s leaders thought that killing Mughniyeh was such a good idea.
There are many possible explanations for Israel’s behavior. One of them is simply that such murders are what Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Mossad chief Meir Dagan, know how to do.
Thirty-five years ago, in April 1973, Barak, disguised as a woman, led the hit team which penetrated to the heart of Beirut, and assassinated three Palestinian leaders in their apartment Kamal Udwan, Kamal Nasir and Muhammad Yusif Najjar. In April 1988, Barak was also involved in the killing of Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir), Yasser Arafat’s military chief, in his family home in Tunis. These, and other such lethal operations, earned Barak a record number of decorations more than any other Israeli soldier.
Another possible explanation for the Mughniyeh killing is that Israel was keen to demonstrate to its regional opponents not just Hizbullah and Hamas, but Syria and Iran as well that its long arm can reach deep into their home territory. This seems also to have been the message of Israel’s air-raid last September against a military installation in eastern Syria an unprovoked violation of Syrian sovereignty and international law, which the Bush administration appears to have approved.
No doubt, such spectacular feats of arms are also intended to remind Washington and especially its intelligence community that in spite of the fiasco of the Lebanese war, Israel remains a valuable strategic asset in America’s ‘global war on terror.’
There may well have been some reasons of internal Israeli politics for the assassination of Mughniyeh. Olmert may have felt the need to restore his prestige with the Israeli public after the Vinograd commission’s stern indictment of his leadership in the 2006 war.
For his part, Barak may feel that he needs to project a super-tough image if only to counter the spell that arch-hawk Binyamin Netanyahu still casts over many Israelis. The Likud leader could well be Barak’s direct opponent in the next elections.
Yet another explanation should perhaps be sought in the intense debate, now being conducted inside Israel’s defense and security establishments, on how best to deal with Hizbullah and Hamas, the two militant non-state actors on Israel’s immediate borders.
These movements, deeply rooted respectively in the Lebanese and Palestinian populations, pose a particular difficulty for the IDF. As recent history has shown, they cannot easily be defeated by conventional means. Fighting them is more like conducting a counter-insurgency operation than a conventional war.
Israel is anxious to restore its highly-prized deterrent capability with regard to these two hostile movements. It wants to dissuade them from daring to attack Israeli targets by raising the cost to them of Israeli counter-attacks or pre-emptive attacks, as in the case of Mughniyeh’s killing.
But the immense damage inflicted on Lebanon in 2006 failed to quell Hizbullah (although its fighters were forced by international pressure to withdraw from the border area), while the severe punishment that continues to be inflicted on Gaza and its one-and-a-half million population the daily raids and the cruel siege has not stopped home-made Qassam rockets from falling on the Israeli town of Sderot.
These Palestinian rockets inflict few casualties at most one Israeli is killed for the death of some 40 Palestinians but they make life very unpleasant in Israel’s Negev towns and put great pressure on Olmert’s government to do something to stop them.
How to seize the initiative in the asymmetric war waged by Hizbullah and Hamas? This is Israel’s immediate challenge. It seems highly reluctant to launch a major ground operation against Gaza, let alone a repeat of the Lebanon war. It may, therefore, have decided that targeted assassinations is the best way to proceed.
Although such killings run the risk of provoking revenge attacks, the Israeli calculation may be that such a risk is worth taking, compared to the inevitable losses that would be incurred by a major military operation, not to speak of the missile threat to the civilian population of northern Israel.
If this analysis is correct, the assassination of Mughniyeh should be seen as an alternative to a large-scale war, and not a prelude to one as many Arabs fear. Israel is seeking to deter Hizbullah, not to provoke it into another conflict on the scale of the ill-fated 2006 war.
There is yet a further possible explanation of Israel’s brutal forward strategy towards its Arab opponents. The Jewish state has resolutely refused to be drawn into serious peace negotiations with Syria or the Palestinians or even into a long-term ceasefire such as Hamas has proposed because any peace settlement would necessarily entail territorial concessions.
In order to avoid returning territory which the Arabs demand as the price for peace and normal relations Israel’s traditional strategy has been to radicalize its Arab environment. It has no time, for example, for “moderate” Palestinians who want to negotiate. Mahmud Abbas, president of the hapless Palestinian Authority, will be hard put to get even a few crumbs out of Ehud Olmert.
Israel seems to prefer being surrounded by radical movements like Hizbullah and Hamas (which it did much to create), because, as Israeli leaders like to intone, “How can you negotiate with someone who wants to kill you?”
The answer is that you kill him first.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of “The Struggle for Syria;” also, “Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East”; and “Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.”
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