Hamas leadership on the IDF firing line

The deaths of Hamas leaders Ali Alan and Nasser Asida are the latest in series of blows the terror group has suffered in the past month at the hands of the IDF and security forces.

Alan, head of Hamas’s military wing in the southern West Bank, was killed by IDF troops in a pre-dawn raid in a village south of Bethlehem. Asida, an Izzadin Kassam Brigades leader, was shot dead in a gun battle near a village outside of Nablus.  Their removal, along with the March 8 targeted killing of one of the group’s founders, Dr. Ibrahim al-Makadmeh, and the March 3 arrest of another Hamas veteran, Muhammad Taha, make clear the degree to which the IDF has focused on neutralizing Hamas in recent weeks.

The targeting of the group’s senior officials comes against the backdrop of the virtual destruction of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces by the IDF, and Hamas’s ambitions of dominating Palestinian politics in its stead. Indeed, one stimulus for dismantling the group’s terrorist infrastructure was the PA’s recent failure to reach an agreement with Hamas in Egyptian-mediated talks aimed at declaring cease-fires both with Israel and rival Palestinian factions.

From stabbings and shootings of individuals and small groups – civilian and soldier alike – to well-planned infiltrations and massive, demoralizing bombings, Hamas has surpassed all competing terrorist groups in bloodying Israel since September 1993. Since then it has claimed responsibility for at least 65 attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, killing more than 300 people. In the past two and a half years alone, it has murdered more than 250 in over 40 attacks.

The group sprouted from a minor offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to a brutal militia capable of altering Israel’s political landscape. It was the first to shatter the hope of the Declaration of Principles, with the stabbing death by one of its members of Yigal Vaknin in a citrus grove in September 1993. It inspired a Shin Bet informant to kill his handler in February 1994, started bombing buses with the April 1994 attack in Afula, and left the country breathless by kidnaping Cpl. Nahshon Wachsman in October of the same year. Its bombings of two No. 18 buses in Jerusalem within days of each other in the spring of 1996 were instrumental in swaying the country to vote Binyamin Netanyahu into power rather than Shimon Peres.  The group also counts to its credit the Seder night massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in 2002, the worst single terror attack in Israel since the 1978 beachfront invasion and hijacking in which more than 30 were killed. Said by senior officials to have received training and support from Hizbullah and al-Qaida, it has scored military successes as well by destroying several IDF tanks and terrorizing Sderot with its Kassam rockets.

Crippling Hamas would mark not only a major security achievement, but could also provide Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a significant opportunity to renew diplomatic initiatives with the Palestinians. If the war clouds over Iraq are distracting international attention from the IDF’s military maneuvers against Palestinian terrorism now, then the eventual resolution of that conflict is sure to sharpen the spotlight on the ability of Sharon’s new government to ‘make painful concessions’ in the pursuit of peace later on. But any such initiative is likely to be acceptable to the public only if its deadliest enemies have been neutralized.

Can the combination of arrests and assassinations achieve that result? Israel’s experience with Fatah-based groups in the West Bank suggests it can.  Tanzim and the Aksa Martyrs Brigades were engaged in a macabre contest of killing when Sharon ordered massive call-ups for Operation Defensive Shield. The slow, house-to-house searches in the West Bank’s most populous (and dangerous) cities did not immediately end Fatah terrorism, but they decimated the group’s factions, which had until then operated too freely in PA-controlled areas. 

Perhaps more important than the ‘targeted killings’ of the cell members and masterminds responsible for so many bombings and roadside ambushes, were the close-up confrontations in the crowded alleyways where Palestinian terrorists hide. Although the IDF suffered a few dozen losses, it ultimately overwhelmed the poorer-equipped Palestinians with its well-trained troops, supported by armor and helicopter gunships.  The nature of those urban battles removed the terrorists’ advantage in guerrilla strikes, offering them a choice: surrender or die. Most surrendered.

The watershed arrest of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti – until then considered a possible challenger to Yasser Arafat – delivered the message that even ‘political’ leaders of terror groups were no longer immune.

Some commentators and politicians have warned of dire consequences of these actions, but the numbers bear out a different reality. The rate of attacks in the West Bank dwindled from over 500 in March 2002 to only 100 two months later, and that number continues to decrease. Attacks inside Israel have dropped from an average of 31 per month in the first year and a half of this conflict to just under 13 per month since April 2002. Far from growing stronger, the Fatah groups and PA policemen who joined or supported them have become less capable, more isolated, and have less access to vital funds.

The ‘kill or capture’ strategy is beginning to reap similar rewards in the Gaza Strip, where the noose is tightening around Hamas. The real danger now lies not in retaliation for IDF operations, but in a job left half-done. If Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantissi are allowed to continue cultivating martyrs, then the army’s efforts may very well ultimately be in vain. But if Sharon brings them and their top lieutenants to justice, then he is more likely to affect a momentous turning point in Israel’s fight against terrorism.