Analysis: Israel reintroduces targeted killings, but are they effective?

Netanyahu announced a return to targeted killings in the Gaza Strip. Does the tactic work? 

By Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

The latest inconclusive military flare-up between Israel and Gaza-based terrorists followed the predictable pattern of recent years. Israel responded to an escalating aggression against its civilians, which quickly led to yet another temporary “ceasefire” with seemingly no end in sight.

However, Israel did reintroduce one crucial military element that has been absent for some time on the Gaza front: targeted killings.

On May 6, just after a cease-fire was reached with Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel had officially returned to its policy of targeted killings of “senior terrorists.”

“In the past two days we have renewed the policy of eliminating senior terrorists, killing dozens of terrorists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” the prime minister said.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that it killed at least one high-ranking official, Hamad Hudri, a member of  Hamas’ Izeedine al-Qassam Brigades. Hudri was responsible for transferring funds from Iran to Gaza-based terrorist organizations.

It raises an important questions:  Is the target killings policy effective? And if so, why did Israel stop the tactic on the Gaza front in the first place?

Study examines effectiveness

In a study titled “Measuring the Effectiveness of Israel’s ‘Targeted Killing’ Campaign” published in 2015 by the Terrorism Research Initiative, Leiden University, counter-terrorism expert Ophir Falk carefully examined the efficacy of the targeted killing policy as a counter-terrorism measure.

The study looked at Israeli targeted killings of terrorists during the period 2000 to 2010. During the Second Intifada, Israeli society faced a wave of lethal suicide bombings. The study examined whether Israeli use of targeted killings effectively mitigated the suicide bombings.

A key finding in the study is that targeting senior terrorists, especially ideological leaders in Gaza, had a positive effect on reducing the number of suicide bombing fatalities.

For instance, the study examined the frequency of suicide bombings prior and after Israel’s elimination of senior terrorist leaders like Hamas’s Ahmad Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi.

The study shows that the number of suicide bombings dropped after the targeted killings. While the terrorist organizations’ desire to strike Israel increased after each targeted killing, their capabilities decreased.

The study stresses that the value of targeted killings is mainly tactical and not strategic. Targeted killings do not end wars and do not bring about peace. However, they do clearly appear to undermine the terrorist organizations’ ability to carry out attacks.

It should be noted that the study mainly deals with yesterday’s suicide bombings and not today’s rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. However, in both cases, senior terrorist commanders seek to maximize the number of Israeli casualties while avoiding being killed themselves.

Terrorist leaders like the late Hamas commanders Yassin and al-Rantisi had no scruples sending their foot soldiers to a certain death as long as they succeeded in murdering Israeli civilians. However, the vast majority of terrorist leaders have no desire to die themselves. Quite the opposite. While living conditions are harsh for ordinary Gazans, Hamas’s leadership enjoys a life of comfort and luxury.

Targeting terrorist leaders sends a powerful message that there are personally lethal consequences for attacking Israel. In short, while Hamas and Islamic Jihad chiefs glorify “martyrdom” for lower-level terrorist operatives, they are in no hurry to give up their own earthly pleasures. This was true in the case of those who sent suicide bombers and it is equally true in the case of those who launch today’s rocket attacks on Israeli civilians.

So if targeted killings are effective, at least on a tactical level, why did Israel cease this counter-terrorism policy?

Shift to northern front

In truth, Israel’s targeted killings didn’t end. They essentially transferred from the Gaza front to Israel’s northern front where the Jewish State is facing a strategic threat from Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

In 2015, for instance, Israel eliminated the notorious Hezbollah-affiliated terrorist Samir Kuntar in Syria. In 1979, in a particularly gruesome terrorist attack, Kuntar murdered four Israeli civilians including two Israeli children in the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya.

In 2018, the senior Syrian scientist Aziz Asbar was killed in Syria in a targeted killing attributed to the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad. Asbar was responsible for Syria’s long-range rockets and chemical weapons program. In recent years, numerous senior Iranian nuclear scientists and senior Iranian military commanders have been killed in operations attributed to Israel.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Gaza front has been overshadowed by the strategic challenge of stopping Iran’s ambitions of developing nuclear weapons and entrenching itself militarily on Israel’s northern border.

This explains the discrepancy between Israel’s underwhelming and reactive response on the Gaza front compared to Israel’s pro-active and assertive responses on the northern front.

While Hamas still seeks Israel’s destruction, its shorter-term interest is political survival and asserting power in Gaza. Hamas therefore shares Israel’s interest in quiet on the Gaza border.

While Israel’s long-term interest is a peaceful post-Hamas Gaza, Jerusalem currently does not want anarchy and increased violence in Gaza that would likely follow the collapse of the Hamas regime. For this reason Jerusalem has avoided targeting high-profile Hamas commanders that could undermine the Islamist organization’s control of Gaza.

Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization in Gaza that is directly financed and commanded by Iran’s regime, initiated the latest flare-up on the border. The anti-Israel violence was most likely ordered by Tehran, which seeks to divert Israel’s attention from the Iranian military buildup in Syria.

However, the scale of the most recent attack, in which Israel absorbed nearly 700 rockets, has led to a change in thinking among Israel’s leadership, marked by the prime minister’s announcement of a return to targeted killings.

The response appears logical given the tactic’s studied effectiveness.