A headache for Hamas

The Associated Press story yesterday on Salafi groups in Gaza directing their burning hatreds at the “blasphemous” government of Hamas was both chilling and delightful.

Chilling, obviously, because of the venom and extremism fueling these groups, and because of the thoughts of what damage they could cause to Israeli civilians by continuing to fire rockets at the towns just outside the Gaza Strip.

Delightful, though, because of the prophetic words of one Anna Geifman.

Geifman, a Russian-born history professor at Boston University, specializes in understanding the use of violence in the Russian Revolution. She draws parallels between Bolshevik and anarchistic terrorism and the policies and actions of Hamas — which, as she told me in 2008, actually made her optimistic regarding the eventual demise of the Gazan terrorist group. She said:

“One of the basic characteristics of violence in culture is that it is like a living organism, in that it is mobile, and it must remain in motion in order to survive,” Geifman explains. “So long as the violence is directed externally, it can maintain its momentum – but once it is prevented from that goal, if you wall it off, it can’t stop. Like any organism, it must keep moving. So the violence turns on [its originators]. Consider the Nazis: When they could no longer kill others, they killed themselves.”

If history is a guide, she says, Hamas ought to pay attention.

“[Terrorist] leaders think that they control death, but in reality they are merely agents of death,” she says. “That is why every revolution ultimately swallows itself.”

In other words, an ideology of violence is a Frankenstein’s monster that is destined to turn on its master. This was the case with Hamas in its rivalry with Fatah, and it may now be the case with the Salafi groups in their rivalry with Hamas.

Viva la revolucion!

While Abbas crashes and burns

While everyone is busy grilling Mahmoud Abbas these days over the Palestinian Authority’s decision (i.e. his decision) to let the Goldstone Report die, and preparing to eulogize him for all the rage that is being directed at him for it, let’s not forget who benefits from this circus — Hamas. After all, the more intense the criticism of Abbas, the less attention is paid to the Hamas leaders who:

1) lauded, authorized, ordered and/or paid for the firing of Kassam rockets at Israel from amongst the homes and backyards of Gazan civilians;

2) goaded to the point of begging Israeli infantry to stomp through the crowded streets of Gaza City;

3) forced civilians to house or hide armed fighters in their homes;

4) mined schools, a zoo, playing fields and countless alleyways with explosives that any child could have triggered by accident;

5) hid in and fired from mosques;

6) looted internationally funded humanitarian aid packages of food and fuel for their own wealthy elites;

and more.

A lesson in Sri Lanka

For a few months already, government troops have been on the verge of ridding Sri Lanka of the island nation’s terrorist scourge, the Tamil Tigers. Now, it seems, they have done so.

Most of the world has ignored this 25-year-long conflict, and Israel is no exception. But now that this struggling island state has defeated one of the most accomplished terrorist and guerilla forces in modern history, it is imperative that every Western nation — and especially Israel — take great pains to study this development well.

The Tigers’ extinction is a resounding reality check for all those who have said that such a movement could not be defeated. Indeed, it was only after the rebels broke a truce that the Sri Lankan government decided to abandon its plan of managing the conflict and go for total victory that success became possible.

There is a profound lesson in this for Israel and its ill-fated strategy vis-a-vis Hamas: Pursue victory, and you shall get it. Pursue calm, and you shall never have it.

Like the notion of bringing Hamas to surrender is ridiculed as impossible, so too was the idea of defeating the Tigers of Tameel Elam once considered impossible. But no more. Today it is not folly to declare, “terrorism can be defeated!” It is folly to ignore such a declaration.

A good start… to a bad ending

Olmert and Barak are attempting to ‘manage’ the conflict with Hamas. That is the wrong approach, and its failure is inevitable

APTOPIX Mideast Israel Palestinians GazaFor the hundreds of thousands of Israelis within range of the rockets that Hamas and its junior partners in terror have been firing for more than seven years now – thousands of missiles in total – the aerial assault that the Israeli air force waged on the Gaza Strip on Saturday was a lot of things: a surprise, a relief, a welcome change from an irresponsible and cowardly policy of restraint that only encouraged the terrorists and abandoned Israeli civilians to their fate. One thing it was not, though, was a solution.

I say that not because I believe in the tired old adage that “there is no military solution in Gaza” – I don’t – but because the prime minister and defense minister have said as much themselves. 

In defining the goals of this (ridiculously named) Operation Cast Lead, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak stated that they were seeking an end to the rocket fire that has pummeled the South and an end to weapons smuggling from Egypt. Yet these are things that Hamas can not give – at least, not openly, not in response to military pressure and not for any significant period. Simply put, Hamas needs to commit these acts because fighting Israel is what the organization is all about. One might as well ask a frog not to jump.

Although the army is now calling up reservists to support the effort, there is no reason to believe that this operation will be anything but limited in scope and duration. All indications thus far are that Israel wants Hamas hurt, but still in place, so that it can come to an agreement on how to live together. What Olmert and Barak are attempting, essentially, is to “manage” Hamas, to establish a sort of “understanding” in which both sides remain committed to the other’s destruction but do as little as possible to antagonize each other. 

If that seems familiar, it’s because it was precisely Israel’s policy toward Hizbullah for years. For much of the past two-and-a-half decades, Israel and Hizbullah observed a sort of de facto truce in which neither side acted beyond certain bounds of aggression, or minimized the scale and arena of confrontation between the two.

All that changed, though, in 2006. In contrast to Ariel Sharon, who retaliated against Hizbullah for kidnapping Israeli soldiers but then reverted to the status quo and negotiated for their return, Olmert responded to the kidnapping of soldiers in a cross-border raid by declaring the crippling of Hizbullah and “changing the rules of the game” once and for all as his goals for the Second Lebanon War. 

With the poor result from that war still reverberating in the public consciousness, much of the talk since Saturday morning’s bombing raids has centered on “the lessons of the Second Lebanon War” and whether Olmert and the defense establishment have learned them. The limited goals of this campaign, everyone seems to believe, show that those lessons have been learned. But they have not. That campaign was misguided, and this one appears to be, too.

Hizbullah was a formidable foe, a well-trained, well-armed, well-funded guerilla force. It was deeply entrenched in difficult terrain, across a large area, with a sizable territory at its back to which it could retreat. It was a small player in a larger state structure that, despite serious divisions and difficulties, was nonetheless part of the community of nations and functioned as such. It had on its border a large, cooperative and supportive neighbor that eagerly transferred weapons, funds and credibility to the Islamic Resistance. 

In these circumstances, destroying Hizbullah – without a massive war that would have ultimately destroyed Lebanon as a state and required a full-scale war with Syria as well – was an impossible goal. “Managing” the conflict with Hizbullah was the right approach, and abandoning it was the first of several crucial mistakes that Olmert made.

In Gaza and Hamas, however, Israel faces a very different situation. Despite swelling from a total of a few hundred men under arms just a few years ago to as many as 15,000 now, Hamas remains light years away from Hizbullah as a fighting force. Its training, its arms and its funding are less than what Hizbullah had in 1996, to say nothing of Hizbullah’s position in 2006. 

Further, Hamas stands on a comparatively tiny patch of land, flat and exposed, with nothing but the sea at its back. It is alone in ruling its territory, and its rule is neither effective nor recognized as legitimate nor even fully autonomous in the community of nations. On its border stands an uncooperative, perturbed neighbor that wants nothing more than to be rid of it and of the Hamas thugs who sprouted from the Muslim Brotherhood movement that poses the greatest threat to the Cairo regime.

In these circumstances, destroying Hamas is a goal that, although difficult, is feasible. Targeting the top echelon of political leaders such as Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud a-Zahar, as well as at least half of the Hamas cadres, might be a tricky proposition, but it is ultimately the only correct strategy. 

“Managing” the conflict with Hamas, on the other hand, is the wrong approach, and its failure is inevitable. Seeking an “understanding” with Hamas perpetuates the problem at the benefit of only a brief period of quiet, allows and encourages the organization to continue to grow and to fire more rockets at us, and prevents any real progress toward a two-state solution by paralyzing Mahmoud Abbas and his inferior forces.

What Israel is currently trying to do in Gaza, it should have tried in Lebanon two years ago, and what Israel attempted against Hizbullah then, it should be trying against Hamas now. Until that realization sinks in in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the achievements of Operation Cast Lead will remain just a good beginning… to a sorry ending, which the weary residents of Sderot and Ashkelon have seen coming from kilometers away.

The Bolsheviks of Gaza

Anna Geifman’s cappuccino is getting cold as she talks about Hamas and its motives. The energetic professor makes one point that leads to another, and then to four more.

“I can talk about terrorism from today until doomsday,” Geifman says with a laugh, catching her breath and then adding, more seriously, “or until they stop.”

In Jerusalem, discussions of Palestinian terrorism do seem as if they’ll go on until doomsday, and the academics doing the talking are a dime a dozen. What makes Geifman different is that her expertise lies in another field, even in another era: revolutionary Russia. It’s a subject she teaches her students at Boston University and one that, she says, is strikingly similar to modern times.

“Everything you see today – every single aspect of terrorism – you can see it in the Russia of a century ago,” she says.

Before our lives were changed by the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah, Geifman notes, Russian society was devastated by rampant violence, from the turmoil leading up to the peasant revolt of 1905, through the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union. Political violence in Russia – what we call terrorism today – developed primarily in Moscow and was perpetrated by “combat organizations” whose first targets were government officials.

“This was old-time, traditional terrorism – targeting people very carefully, assassinating people who were senior members of the government, people who affected policy,” Geifman says. “But then, they basically killed whoever they could attack, and very often there was no connection. Anyone who wore a uniform became a target – being a mailman was a very dangerous occupation, for example.”

Think attacks on police recruitment centers in Iraq are unique? Think again, says Geifman, noting that a quarter of the police in Riga were gunned down.

Think al-Qaida’s informal, decentralized network of cells and spinoffs is an innovation? Not so, she continues, saying that Moscow’s combat organizations spawned acolyte groups in outlying areas that often operated independently from the headquarters that, sometimes, were totally unaware of their existence.

As the bloodshed increased, Geifman says, “the violence descended into indiscriminate killing. They were no longer attacking people in uniform, but anyone who ‘looked bourgeois.’ If you had glasses, or a watch, or an umbrella, then obviously you were too rich to be a proletarian. That is where the descent into sheer terror begins.”

At some points in the early part of the 20th century, Geifman says, as many as 18 terrorist acts were carried out in Russia every day. That rivals the murderous activity here in 2002, for example, or more recently in Iraq. Likewise, the terrorism was similar.

“They would blow up train stations, they would blow up cafés,” Geifman says. “One such bombing was justified with the remark, ‘We just wanted to see how the bourgeois squirm in death.'”

Not only were the targets of the attacks indiscriminate, but so were the attackers. Every other person, it seemed, was declaring himself a “revolutionary terrorist” and joining one of myriad groups, with fanciful names like “The League of the Red Fuse,” in a hodgepodge of violent orders that blurred together.

Like the mind-numbing proliferation of Palestinian terrorist groups (that was so brilliantly lampooned by Monty Python) and the endless permutations of jihadi militias, Russian revolutionary terrorists’ claims of ideological affiliation and aims became so convoluted that they often even confused themselves. Terrorists testifying at their trials, Geifman notes, were often unable to explain what they believed – or, sometimes, to even accurately recall the full name of their organization.

“Some were honest enough to say, ‘Who the hell cares about ideology? The main thing is to kill.'”

SUCH SIMILARITIES between Russian terrorists and those on Israel’s doorstep are the subject of much of Geifman’s work these days. Since making aliya earlier this year – she plans to divide her time between teaching in Boston and writing in Jerusalem – Geifman has spent extended weekends in Sderot, meeting the people of the bombarded city and trying to raise awareness of their plight. Knowledge of Russian history, she believes, will provide valuable insight on the situation in Gaza City.

“Israelis know all about Hamas,” she says, “but they don’t know anything about the Russian precedent. People have no clue that the origins of the war on terrorism are in Russia.”

Geifman took a circuitous route to that knowledge herself. After moving from the Soviet Union to Boston with her family in 1976, the teenager “felt so un-American” that she took to studying Russian history as something of a refuge. It led to her eventually writing a biography of Viktor Chernov, leader of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party for which terror was a chief strategy, as well as Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia and other works.

Since a sabbatical visit to Israel in 2000, Geifman has focused on modern parallels to political violence in revolutionary Russia, especially in the Middle East. She has also become more Zionistic and more religiously observant.

Mostly, though, Geifman tries to sound the alarm about the dangers of thinking that Hamas is moderated by its control of the Gaza Strip.

“Whenever I hear someone suggest that Hamas might become a more responsible movement now that it is in charge, I think, ‘Why don’t you read a little about the Bolsheviks and see if you still believe that?'” she says.

It bothers her to hear speculation about Hamas being more open to negotiating with Israel and softening its radical positions, when history suggests otherwise.

“You want to know what happens when terrorists come to power? As soon as terrorists come to power, they begin building on what they did to get there. Look at the Bolsheviks, who were terrorists before they came to power in 1917. They used this terror-based revolution to build a terror-based state.”

It’s no surprise, for example, that Hamas is so heavily invested in its “security forces,” considering that the Bolsheviks established the forerunner to the KGB less than a month after taking over. Terror states, Geifman says, are based on a legacy, an ideology and a practice – specifically, the legacy, ideology and practice of terrorism.

So when anyone suggests that seeing a terrorist group like Hamas come to power in Gaza might actually be a positive development, Geifman says, “It scares me like you can’t imagine.”

If her analogy of Hamas as the Bolsheviks of Gaza is accurate, then there is “no way that Hamas will turn away from terrorism. No way! They will remain an organization committed to terror,” she says. “And the first victims of Hamas rule will not be the Israelis, but the Palestinians themselves – just as the the Bolsheviks’ primary victims were not the Poles, nor the Czechs, nor the Americans, nor anyone else, but the Russians and the Ukrainians.”

Avoiding this comparison, Geifman believes, turning to psychology, is an effect of the terrorism with which Western society is bombarded.

“I think we suffer – I think the whole world now suffers – from a collective Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “Our problem is that we so want to believe in the goodness of people that we can’t see how bad some people are. [There are people who] don’t want to call these people terrorists. Well, you can call them pussycats, if you want. But they’re not going to stop killing.”

Geifman draws on the Beslan school massacre for comparison with the Gaza terrorist groups’ missile barrages on Sderot and the Western Negev, noting that “they often fire their rockets in the morning, as children are going to school, and in the afternoon, as they are on their way home from school.” Children, she notes, are symbols of life, and as such serve as particularly attractive targets for groups whose culture is “death-based.”

At this, Geifman turns to thoughts from her growing religious observance, recalling the Torah’s directive to “choose life.”

“As Jews, we have an obligation to choose life, and to defend it. Otherwise,” she says, “death takes over.” In spite of this bleak view, though, Geifman says she is “very optimistic” that Hamas will eventually fade away.

Why? “Because,” she says, “in history, not a single death cult survives.”

Furthermore, how they meet their end is instructive.

“One of the basic characteristics of violence in culture is that it is like a living organism, in that it is mobile, and it must remain in motion in order to survive,” Geifman explains. “So long as the violence is directed externally, it can maintain its momentum – but once it is prevented from that goal, if you wall it off, it can’t stop. Like any organism, it must keep moving. So the violence turns on [its originators]. Consider the Nazis: When they could no longer kill others, they killed themselves.”

If history is a guide, she says, Hamas ought to pay attention.

“[Terrorist] leaders think that they control death, but in reality they are merely agents of death,” she says. “That is why every revolution ultimately swallows itself.”

Israel and al-Qaida

The path of jihad begins in a cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From there it takes a dizzying spin through Iran, wends its way through the Middle East, and then settles, inevitably, in Israel. From Osama bin Laden’s hideout to the cafes of Haifa and Jerusalem, that path undergoes many transformations, and relies on shifting alliances.

Start with al-Qaida. In the early 1990s, bin Laden met with Hizbullah’s security chief, Imad Mughniyeh, and forged a relationship between the two organizations that included joint training in Lebanon and Iran.

Today, says Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al-Qaeda, “Iran hosts a number of highly capable al-Qaida leaders – Saif Al Adel, the head of security and intelligence, Abu Mohomed al Masri, head of training, Abdul Aziz al Masri, head of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and Suleiman Abu Gaith, head of media. The quality of the al-Qaida leaders in Iran is much higher than those operating on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.”

Bin Laden has returned the favor, too.

“Despite justifying the attacks on the Shi’a population [of Iraq] for collaborating with the coalition in Iraq, al-Qaida has commented positively on the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the growing Iranian influence,” Gunaratna points out.

It’s interesting that the al-Qaida leader would team up with Shi’ite Iran, notes Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst for CNN who was the first to interview bin Laden for television in 1997, because the Sunni bin Laden “privately thinks the Shi’as are heretics.” What brings the two together, then?

More than anything, a burning hatred of Israel.

“There is a degree of integration at a strategic level between the Shi’a and the Sunni with regard to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Saudi royal family,” explains Gunaratna.

(In the run-up to the first Gulf War, bin Laden denounced the royal family for allowing American troops to set up bases on holy Saudi soil, and was expelled to Sudan for doing so.) “Western leaders have often said that al-Qaida has no political aim,” continues Gunaratna, but this is not true. “The strategic goal of al-Qaida is two-fold: first, to destroy Israel; and second, to wrest control of Saudi Arabia.”

On this, at least, Iran and al-Qaida agree. But their interests converge in Iraq as well, which is “on the front doorstep of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries hosting the three holiest Islamic sites,” says Gunaratna.

In 1998, bin Laden’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined other jihadist leaders in signing the Fatwa for Jihad Against Zionists and Crusaders, pledging death to Americans for supporting Israel. Meanwhile, as al-Qaida and Iranian agents stir up trouble for the United States in Iraq, they are content to have Hizbullah attack Israel from the North. But if bin Laden hates Israel so much, why not attack the Zionists directly?

“I have always puzzled over this,” Bergen admits, “because Osama bin Laden is without a doubt a pathological anti-Semite.

“What I have come to realize,” he explains, “is that these guys really believe their own propaganda: that the Pentagon is staffed by Jews, that New York is an entirely Jewish city, etc. So in a sense, attacking America is attacking Israel.

“Besides,” he adds, “al-Qaida has attacked Jewish targets abroad – the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002, the bombings on Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003, the bombings of Istanbul synagogues a few months later, the targeting of Israeli tourists in the 2004 Sinai attacks… ”

The latest war with Hizbullah, Gunaratna states, has also served as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida in a way that the September 11 attacks couldn’t.

“Al-Qaida believed that 9/11 would galvanize the jihadist groups and Muslim communities alike. The spectacular attacks, though, galvanized the jihadist groups but not the Muslim communities,” he says.

“The impetus for mobilizing the Muslim world was Iraq and, certainly, the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. Although they were initiated by the killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, the international media reporting was able to sway international public opinion against Israel.

“It is too early to conclude the degree of impact of emotive images of death and destruction in Lebanon in the Muslim world,” he concludes, “but al-Qaida is playing on it.”

SO AL-QAIDA has a symbiotic terror partnership with Iran, and both have a similar relationship with Hizbullah. In turn, that organization has developed close ties to Hamas.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, the former director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is an internationally recognized expert on all three terror groups. Each one, he notes, is capable of inspiring the other.

“I will always remember the victory speech that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made in Bint Jbail after the Israel withdrawal in 2000,” Ranstorp recalls. “‘Look what we achieved,’ he said, ‘not through negotiations, and not through the Oslo process. Ours is the only road to victory.’

“Since that day,” Ranstorp adds, “cooperation between Hizbullah and Hamas has only grown stronger. I remember when I was in Gaza: I saw organizations cropping up, completely emulating Hizbullah, even to the point of adopting its logo.”

In its rocket barrages on Haifa this summer, Hizbullah no doubt was eager to score a direct hit on one of the fuel or chemical facilities in the city.

Such a strike would have been a successful version of Hamas’s failed attempt in 2002 to blow up the Pi Glilot gas and fuel storage facility near Tel Aviv.

“They may indeed try for that again,” says Ranstorp.

Hamas, though, is the weak link in the jihad chain around Israel’s neck.

“In all the trips I ever made to Israel, whenever I lectured to the IDF,” Ranstorp says, “it seemed that no one was that concerned about Hamas because they had them in a box. They knew exactly where every Hamas leader was, and every senior operative too, because Hamas operates in a hermetically sealed environment.”

The arrest or targeted killings of Hamas members – including the assassinations of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi in the spring of 2004 – have decimated the organization’s leadership, Ranstorp notes; alongside Western and Egyptian intervention, they have combined to encourage Hamas to focus its energies on political struggles within the Palestinian Authority.

“I was watching in amusement when Sheikh Yassin and Rantissi were assassinated,” Ranstorp says, “because there was obviously no security reason for their elimination. They were merely opportune times to force Hamas into the political structure. And it has worked.”

Over the past five years, Israel has managed to carry out against Hamas the “four D” approach that US President George W. Bush has struggled to execute against al-Qaida: defeat, deny, diminish and defend. Ranstorp wonders whether Israel could achieve a similar level of success against Hizbullah.

“To be brutally frank, although the situation would get worse in the short term, I think the peace process would be strengthened if Nasrallah were to disappear. To take out him and the organization’s top 30 leaders would create a vacuum, sowing disarray,” he says. “Of course, there would be someone to immediately fill the ranks, but… ”

Stopping short of endorsing a major assassination campaign against the Party of God, Ranstorp allows himself an academic’s conjecture that “It would be interesting to see the Hamas model applied to Hizbullah.”

Even more interesting would be to see the Hamas model applied to al-Qaida.

Since October 2001, the organization has lost more than 3,000 members. In Iraq, commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June and, this week, the reigning No. 2 man there was captured. In Afghanistan, also this week, NATO forces killed well over 200 fighters of the Taliban regime that was in league with bin Laden.

Decimating al-Qaida, obviously, is not so simple. But after all, the path to jihad that ends in Israel is linked like a series of dominoes, being pushed by zealots bent on toppling the Zionist entity. And who’s to say that Israel can’t push back?

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.