Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination
Published:November 16, 2012
New York Times
AHMED AL-JABARI — the strongman of Hamas, the head of its military wing, theman responsible for the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — wasassassinated on Wednesday by Israeli missiles.
Why? Israel’s government has declared that the aim ofthe current strikes against Gaza is to rebuild deterrence so that no rocketswill be fired on Israel. Israel’s targeted killings of Hamas leaders in thepast sent the Hamas leadership underground and prevented rocket attacks onIsrael temporarily. According to Israeli leaders, deterrence will be achievedonce again by targeting and killing military and political leaders in Gaza andhitting hard at Hamas’s military infrastructure. But this policy has never beeneffective in the long term, even when the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas,Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed by Israel. Hamas didn’t lay down its guns then,and it won’t stop firing rockets at Israel now without a cease-fire agreement.
When we were negotiating with Hamas to release Mr.Shalit, members of the Israeli team believed that Mr. Jabari wouldn’t make adeal because holding Mr. Shalit was a kind of “life insurance policy.” As longas Mr. Jabari held Mr. Shalit, Israelis believed, the Hamas leader knew he wassafe. The Israeli government had a freer hand to kill Mr. Jabari after Mr.Shalit was released in October 2011. His insurance policy was linked to theirassessment of the value of keeping him alive. This week, that policy expired.
I believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsiblestrategic error by deciding to kill Mr. Jabari. No, Mr. Jabari was not a man ofpeace; he didn’t believe in peace with Israel and refused to have any directcontact with Israeli leaders and even nonofficials like me. My indirectdealings with Mr. Jabari were handled through my Hamas counterpart, GhaziHamad, the deputy foreign minister of Hamas, who had received Mr. Jabari’sauthorization to deal directly with me. Since Mr. Jabari took over the militarywing of Hamas, the only Israeli who spoke with him directly was Mr. Shalit, whowas escorted out of Gaza by Mr. Jabari himself. (It is important to recall thatMr. Jabari not only abducted Mr. Shalit, but he also kept him alive and ensuredthat he was cared for during his captivity.)
Passing messages between the two sides, I was able tolearn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-termcease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previouscease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency. Mr.Jabari enforced those cease-fires only after confirming that Israel wasprepared to stop its attacks on Gaza. On the morning that he was killed, Mr.Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel,including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. Thisdraft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad,when we met last week in Egypt.
The goal was to move beyond the patterns of the past.For years, it has been the same story: Israeli intelligence discoversinformation about an impending terrorist attack from Gaza. The Israeli Armytakes pre-emptive action with an airstrike against the suspected terror cells,which are often made up of fighters from groups like Islamic Jihad, the PopularResistance Committees or Salafi groups not under Hamas’s control butfunctioning within its territory. These cells launch rockets into Israeli townsnear Gaza, and they often miss their targets. The Israeli Air Force respondsswiftly. The typical result is between 10 and 25 casualties in Gaza, zero casualtiesin Israel and huge amounts of property damage on both sides.
Other key Hamas leaders and members of the ShuraCouncil, its senior decision-making body, supported a new cease-fire effortbecause they, like Mr. Jabari, understood the futility of successive rocketattacks against Israel that left no real damage on Israel and dozens ofcasualties in Gaza. Mr. Jabari was not prepared to give up the strategy of“resistance,” meaning fighting Israel, but he saw the need for a new strategyand was prepared to agree to a long-term cease-fire.
This war is being presented in Israel, once again, as a war of “no choice.”The people of Israel are rallying around the flag as would be expected anywherein the world. The United States government has voiced its support of theIsraeli operation by stating, “Israel has the full right to defend itself andprotect its citizens.” It certainly does, but we must ask whether there isanother way to achieve the same goal without the use of force.
Israel has used targeted killings, ground invasions, drones, F-16s, economicsiege and political boycott. The only thing it has not tried and tested isreaching an agreement (through third parties) for a long-term mutualcease-fire.
No government can tolerate having its civilianpopulation attacked by rockets from a neighboring territory. And the firing ofthousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel must end. There was a chance for a mutuallyagreed cease-fire. The difference between the proposal I drafted in cooperationwith my Hamas counterpart and past proposals was that it included both amechanism for dealing with impending terror threats and a clear definition ofbreaches. This draft was to be translated and shared with both Mr. Jabari andIsraeli security officials, who were aware of our mediation efforts.
In the draft, which I understand Mr. Jabari saw hoursbefore he was killed, it was proposed that Israeli intelligence informationtransmitted through the Egyptians would be delivered to Mr. Jabari so that hecould take action aimed at preventing an attack against Israel. Mr. Jabari andhis forces would have had an opportunity to prove that they were serious whenthey told Egyptian intelligence officials that they were not interested inescalation. If Mr. Jabari had agreed to the draft, then we could have preventedthis new round of violence; if he had refused, then Israel would have likelyattacked in much the same way as it is now.
The proposal was at least worth testing. Moreover, itincluded the understanding that if Israel were to take out a real ticking bomb— people imminently preparing to launch a rocket — such a strike would not beconsidered a breach of the cease-fire and would not lead to escalation.
Instead, Mr. Jabari is dead — and with him died thepossibility of a long-term cease-fire. Israel may have also compromised theability of Egyptian intelligence officials to mediate a short-term cease-fireand placed Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt at risk.
This was not inevitable, and cooler heads could haveprevailed. Mr. Jabari’s assassination removes one of the more practical actorson the Hamas side.
Who will replace him? I am not convinced that Israel’spolitical and military leaders have adequately answered that question.
Gershon Baskin is a co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Researchand Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiatorof the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Shalit.