Amir Rapaport’s Weekly Column: Off with Their Heads

Parallel to the ground offensive the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the Mossad are working intensively on the “decapitation” operation targeting Yahya Sinwar and the other leaders of Hamas – at all levels. What does history teach us?

One of the first moves made by the IDF upon entering Khan Yunis on Tuesday this week was to encircle the home of Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Sinwar is much more than just a leader: he is the fanatic mastermind behind the surprise October 7th Hamas attack, along with Mohammed Deif, the head of the military wing. A prominent position on the list of the most wanted in Gaza is also held by Mohammed Sinwar, who orchestrated the abduction of Gilad Shalit, leading to the release of 1,057 prisoners from Israeli prisons –  including his brother, Yahya.

The IDF and the Shin Bet know that there is no chance Yahya Sinwar is in the targeted house on 'Street Number 5' (perhaps they are looking for family members) – but this move isn’t random. It is part of a broad, strategic effort carried out in parallel with the ground operation: the elimination of the leaders of Hamas at all levels, wherever they may be.

In this context, Israel’s Public Broadcasting Corporation tv channel 11 published an unusual recording of the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, where he stated, “The cabinet set us a goal. In street language, it is to eliminate Hamas, and we are determined to do it. It will take years, but this is our generation's mission, our 'Munich mission.' We will eliminate the leaders of Hamas everywhere – in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar."

The recording, which stirred up Qatar and mainly Turkey, was made illegally in a special meeting of the Security Cabinet with heads of local authorities at the Central Command a few weeks ago, and was approved for publication exceptionally by the military censorship.

The pursuit of the leaders of Hamas is not just a matter of revenge. It is part of the beheading, or decapitation, approach. The central idea is that, just like in the human body, not all organs are equally critical, and one can continue to live without an arm or a leg but not without the head.

On the ground level, this is manifested by the IDF maintaining hit lists targeting the commanders of Hamas at the brigade, battalion, and company levels. In the northern part of the Gaza Strip, which has already been largely dealt with in the IDF's operation, two brigade commanders, Aiman Nofal and Ahmed Andor, have already been eliminated, along with dozens of other officers. Additionally, heads of various arrays such as weapons or rocket launching were also targeted and eliminated.

This week, the IDF released a photo from a meeting in tunnels, laden with refreshments, of the Hamas’ Northern Gaza Brigade, led by Ahmed Andor along with his senior command staff. Those were fine days for the brigade – except that since October 7, in addition to Andor, five more of the commanders in the photo have been killed. Several of the other individuals in the photo were wounded.

Generally speaking, it doesn't matter whether it's a platoon, battalion, brigade, or division – when the commander is eliminated, or “decapitated”, the functionality of the unit under his command is impacted, even if it doesn't cease entirely. For targeted assassinations in Gaza – tasks are divided among various war rooms.

When it comes to high-ranking targets, such as brigade commanders, the elimination is coordinated from the Shin Bet and IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. Commanders at intermediate ranks are targeted in operations managed from the Southern Command headquarters. Lower-ranking officers are targeted one after another, according to instructions given by the fire command units in the divisions.

And as the IDF operates deeper into the territory, interrogating captured prisoners who provide valuable intelligence – the noose tightens around the remaining commanders still alive.

At the highest levels, involving senior Hamas figures outside the Gaza Strip, including Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal (both of whom survived assassination attempts many years ago) – the task is mainly entrusted to the Mossad, according to the testimony of the Prime Minister himself, who stated that he gave the organization “a directive.”

However, there is doubt whether the assassination of the external leadership of Hamas will truly impact the terror organization. They aren’t the ones who make the decisions in Gaza. The current super goal is to eliminate Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, hoping that this might even shorten the duration of the war, which at this moment does not yet see its end.

Operational effectiveness

But what can we learn from a historical perspective? Is the “decapitation” of the highest leadership, like Sinwar and Deif, truly effective?

Well, history teaches us that there is no definitive answer. It depends on the circumstances. The most notable case where an assassination actually worsened the situation was the killing of Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi, killed by a helicopter strike in 1992.

Four years later, following the assassination of Hamas' “engineer” Yahya Ayyash, we witnessed a terrible wave of suicide bombings and numerous replacement “engineers.” While it is generally true that everyone has a replacement, in cases of unique personalities being eliminated or an intensive series of targeted killings, ”decapitation” can indeed reduce terrorism.

 Thus, it is commonly acknowledged that the assassination of the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Dr. Fathi Shaqaqi, in October 1995 in Malta did indeed impact the organization's capabilities for years. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also struggles to recover from the imprisonment of its leader Ahmed Saadat in 2004, initially held in Palestinian custody and later, since 2006, held by Israel.

The most distinct case of targeted killings that significantly reduced terrorism occurred against Hamas in Gaza. This took place at the height of the Second Intifada about 20 years ago when Israel began using targeted assassinations as a central tool in the fight against terrorism.

After dozens of successful targeted killings in Gaza and the West Bank, a unique opportunity to eliminate the entire top leadership of Hamas in Gaza presented itself to Israel on September 6, 2003.

Intelligence indicated that the 12 most wanted figures of the organization, a longstanding wish list of the IDF and the Shin Bet, including Mohammed Deif, were set to gather at the private residence of Dr. Marwan Abu Ras in the upscale neighborhood of Rimal in Gaza.

Such a “decapitation” had the potential to alter the course of history, but the operation was launched hastily with minimal preparation. The Air Force deployed heavily armed aircraft carrying MK-84 bombs, each weighing a ton.

The time for deliberation was short, and an incident in which 14 uninvolved Palestinian civilians were killed during the targeting of Salah Shehada in the heart of Gaza, just over a year earlier, was still fresh in memory. The concern was that many uninvolved individuals would again be killed if a similar powerful bomb were used, given the proximity of a multi-story building located only five meters from Abu Ras' house.

Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz were forced to agree with the recommendation of the Air Force's operations research not to carry out the attack. However, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter then brought additional information, stating that the meeting was scheduled to take place on the third floor of the house.

It was decided to attack only the second and third floors using a bomb weighing only 250 kg, to minimize damage to the adjacent structure. Unfortunately, in hindsight, it turned out that the top leadership of Hamas was actually on the first floor of the house.

Mohammed Deif, Ismail Haniyeh, Abed Aziz al-Rantisi, Mahmoud al-Zahar, Ahmed Jaabari, and Adnan al-Ghoul emerged from the bombing with only minor injuries or simply brushed the dust off their clothes and carried on. Among the survivors of that missed golden opportunity, only Deif, Haniyeh, and al-Zahar are still alive. The others were assassinated within a few years.

Then came the assassination of the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, on March 22, 2004, following a targeted airstrike in response to a suicide bombing in Be'er Sheva. In Israel, there was significant concern about a wave of revenge attacks following Yassin's death, but it did not materialize. At that time, the wounded Hamas preferred several years of "hudna,” a temporary truce. The sequence of assassinations had made its mark.

Now, the assassination of Sinwar and Deif is called for even more than that of Ahmed Yassin – yes, also as an act of revenge and to restore Israel’s deterrence. After the horrific events of October 7th, they are both marked for death, much like all the Palestinian terrorists behind the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972, who were subsequently targeted and killed by Israel, and like Osama bin Laden, who was killed by the U.S. nine years after the 9/11 attacks. It may take some time, but Sinwar and Deif are unlikely to die of natural causes.

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