By Joharah Baker
Israel is apparently taking its war on the Palestinians up a notch. As the Gaza Strip continues to burn in the flames of factional infighting and Israeli missile attacks, Israeli officials have announced that no one – including Hamas political leaders – is immune from assassination.
When Israel makes such statements, everyone knows it means business. One of last week’s Israeli military attacks targeted the family “diwan” of Legislative Council member Khalil Al Haya. The missile took the lives of seven of his relatives, including two brothers. Al Haya sustained moderate injuries.
On May 22, Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneih said if the rocket attacks on Israeli territory continued from the Gaza Strip, no Hamas member would be immune from assassination, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Earlier in the week, Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said Hamas politburo chief Khaled Masha’al was also a potential target if the rockets continued to fly.
The assassination of Palestinian political leaders is nothing new for Israel, a policy which has ebbed and flowed in accordance with Israel’s military strategies, goals and political leaders. In fact, Israel began taking out prominent Palestinian leaders as early as the seventies, particularly members of the exiled Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO. In October, 1972, author and member of the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine Ghassan Kanafani, was killed when his car exploded in front of his house in Beirut, Lebanon.
Throughout the seventies, some 15 PLO members from various factions were assassinated in different parts of the world. In 1988, Israel carried out one of its most infamous assassinations, that of Khalil Al Wazir, better known as Abu Jihad. The veteran Fateh leader was assassinated by undercover Israeli intelligence forces in his home in Tunis, the PLO headquarters at the time.
After the return of late President Yasser Arafat to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the creation of the Palestinian Authority, Israel turned its guns missiles on activists inside the homeland. Just a year after the PA took power, Israel began eliminating Palestinian activists in the “newly liberated” territories. In 1994 and 1995, over 10 activists, predominantly from the Islamic movements, were killed in Israeli perpetrated “targeted killings.”
Since then, the discussion of assassinating Palestinian leaders has become frightfully commonplace within Israeli corridors of power.
In August of 2001, Israeli Apache helicopters fired two missiles into the office of PFLP Secretary General Abu Ali Mustapha, killing him instantly. His death marked the beginning of Israeli assassinations of Palestinian political leaders in the occupied territories. After no notable criticism from major world players to this atrocity, Israel saw this door of opportunity wide open.
In March 2004, Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was killed when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles at Yassin and his entourage. Yassin, two of his bodyguards and eight bystanders, including two of his sons were killed in the attack.
Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi succeeded Yassin as Hamas leader but was also assassinated less than a month later.
Still, as tragic as the deaths of these leaders are, it is the fact that Israel has been given a free hand in carrying out such crimes that is truly abominable. Hence, when Israeli officials make threats against Haniyeh or Masha’al today, everyone must realize that they are not empty.
This is not to say that Israel can still carry off such high-profile assassinations without at least a mild scolding. Already, the United States has delivered a lukewarm warning to Israel regarding the assassination of Haniyeh. Following Israeli deputy defense minister Sneh’s threat, in which he called Hamas leaders “terrorists in suits”, US State Department spokesperson Tom Casey said Israel must weigh the consequences, “both in terms of the possibilities for continued political dialogue as well as what other kinds of reactions there might be.” With Israel’s history with the Palestinians, this can hardly be seen as a deterrent.
As for reactions, there will be plenty. For one, Hamas promises not to accept such a move hands-down. "Any harm to Prime Minister Haniyeh or any Hamas leader would mean a change in the rules of the game and the occupation must be ready to pay an unprecedented price,” stated Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri
There is no doubt Israel fully comprehends the ramifications the assassination of Haniyeh or Mesha’al would have on the already volatile situation. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, the inevitable pandemonium and violent backlash that would result in their deaths perfectly serve Israel’s interest, something the Palestinians must be intensely aware of.
While the immediate reaction would most likely be Hamas attacks on Israeli targets, this is a price Israel is more than willing to pay in comparison to the huge payback in Palestinian disunity and chaos the absence of these Hamas leaders would create.
It is a slippery, treacherous slope the Palestinians are heading towards, one for which Israel is happy to clear the path. Although the Palestinian leadership has little if no influence over Israel’s military actions against it – history has shown that even when the rocket attacks subsided, Israel continued limited military action against Palestinian activists – it can and must reassess its own strategies and positions.
The situation in Gaza is disastrous, to say the least. Reigning in the chaos and armed confrontations must be the most immediate priority for the leadership and all the factions involved in this senseless mayhem. For one, everyone must lay down their arms because nothing good can come from killing one another. Only then can we move on to the crucial step of putting our house in order whereby the Palestinian leadership presents one unified front, strong enough and wise enough to confront internal challenges as well as external threats, first and foremost the assassination of its leaders.
If we are to preserve our national cause, the lives of our citizens and our standing in the international arena, the Palestinians must understand this before everything else. A “house divided” is that much easier to conquer.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (www.miftah.org)