by Ehud Eiran
He was the “de-facto” ruler of Gaza and represented a revolution that challenged Israel’s right to exist. Finally, it was his involvement in Palestinian terror attacks against Israel that led to his assassination. On July 19th 1956, Colonel Musfasa Hafez, Nasser’s Intelligence Chief in the (then) Egyptian controlled Gaza, was killed by an Israeli bomb.
Almost fifty years have passed. Israel’s once measured and secretive policy of targeted assassinations has gone global to Beirut and Paris in the 1970’s, Tunis in the 1980’s, and Malta in the 1990’s. But at the end of this long route of targeted killings of terrorists we are back to where we were in 1956: Gaza’s refugee camps, deep Palestinian frustration, a revolutionary ideology, and the endless cycle of violence.
Fifty years of targeted assassinations did not solve a single Israeli strategic problem. The challenges we face are deep and structural and cannot be personified. The Palestinian problem did not disappear, despite the targeted killings of top PLO officials in 1973 in Beirut, of Arafat’s deputy in Tunis in 1988, and of the leader of Islamic Jihad in Malta in 1995.
Targeted assassinations proved to be an ineffective deterrent. Previous attempts on the lives of Hamas leaders, such as Mashal (1997), Rantisi (2003) and Yassin himself (2003) did not change the nature of their involvement in terrorism. The 1996 killing of Ayyash, the Hamas engineer who pioneered suicide bombing, did little to deter many others from following in his footsteps.
Targeted assassinations are not only an ineffective policy tool, but they also beget blowbacks. The 1992 killing of Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Musaawi, demonstrates both problems. Musaawi was replaced by a far more competent leader, Nassarallah; and Hezbollah’s vengeance led to hundreds of casualties in Argentina later that decade.
Israel should defend itself and thwart terrorist attacks, but targeted assassinations deliver neither. Israel was always innovative in “creating security”: it is time to go back to the drawing boards, and think again.
Then there is the moral problem. Do not get me wrong: Yassin earned his violent exit from this world through his involvement in the deaths of many Israelis, Palestinians and others. Yet in a broader sense, we should be worried by the trigger-happy nature of our response to the second Intifada. In the “good old days” of targeted assassinations in the 1970’s , decisions were made carefully. A special committee headed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Attorney General discussed every case in detail. Great effort was made to prevent the killing of innocent people. Though targeted assassinations were employed between 1956 and 2000, they were rare. Hardly any bystanders were ever hit. However, in the current conflict, all this is gone. According to a reliable Israeli human rights group, 135 Palestinians were killed in targeted assassinations since 2000, alongside ninety bystanders, of whom 28 were minors. We just do not value human lives the way we used to. Before long, this will bounce back and hit us too. In December 2003, for the first time, the IDF fired at Israeli Jewish demonstrators near the newly built barrier, wounding one person. If we do not stop the devaluation of human lives - Palestinian or Israeli - our own Kent State is just a matter of time.
Almost fifty years after the first targeted assassination let us not delude ourselves: The killings do not solve problems; they usually create new ones. If we are naive enough to think otherwise, the next fifty years will only be a bleaker version of what we have gone through since July 19th, 1956.
Ehud Eiran is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School and a PhD Candidate at Brandeis University. Prior to his studies, he served as Assistant Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel, clerked for Israel’s Attorney General, and served as an Army Major.