JERUSALEM – The head of Hamas’ military wing, Ahmed Jabari, a wily fighter who had topped Israel’s target list for a decade and escaped several assassination attempts, fell victim this week to an elaborate deception.
A decision to deliver a strategic blow to Hamas began to take shape among Israeli decision makers early in the week after the Islamic organization and other militants fired some 150 rockets at Israeli communities, 100 on Sunday alone.
Although Israel and Hamas have long been engaged in a routine cycle of violence – a few days of firing followed by respites lasting a few months – the respites had become increasingly short and the rockets fired from Gaza increasingly numerous. The risks for a million residents of southern Israel living within range of Gaza’s rockets had become insufferable.
Israel’s political and military leadership decided this time to go after the rockets – some 10,000 – that Hamas and smaller military organizations are believed to have stored, mostly underground. They also decided to try once more to get Jabari.
Israel’s reaction to the November 11 rocketing was relatively mild. Six militants were killed in air strikes as they attempted to fire rockets but the remaining air strikes were directed at empty rocket launching sites. Although Israeli ministers had begun to deliver militant statements to the press these suddenly tapered off.
At a meeting of the inner cabinet on November 13, Minister Binyamin Begin was designated to be interviewed on Israel Radio. Begin, son of former prime minister Menahem Begin, is both a hawk, who could be expected to support strong action against Hamas, and a politician who enjoys a reputation as a straight-shooter not given to evasion. In the interview, he said, “This cycle is behind us.” Another cycle could be expected in the not distant future, he said, and Israel would then respond with appropriate force.
Israel had closed the crossing point into Gaza after the weekend’s rocketing but on Tuesday it was opened again to goods entering the strip. On Wednesday, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak flew up to the Golan – at the opposite end of the country from Gaza – ostensibly to see the border area where stray shells from the civil war in Syria have struck in recent days.
All this seemed to signal a clear Israeli stand down from the confrontation in Gaza. Shortly before noon Wednesday, the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyhe, who had kept out of sight since the weekend, appeared in public. About 4 p.m. Jabari, who is not usually seen in public, permitted himself to venture out from his hideout and enter his car with a bodyguard. An Israeli aircraft, perhaps a drone, was waiting overhead. Its camera showed the car passing a bus. As it entered a broad intersection, it was hit by a rocket that blew the car apart and killed its occupants.
The assassination was a signal to begin the attack on the rocket arsenals. Israeli warplanes swarmed over the strip, striking some 200 targets in the next 24 hours.
First priority went to attacking the mid-distance Fajr rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area – a strategic weapon Hamas has not yet resorted to. Israeli officials say they believe almost all the Fajr missile arsenals have been hit.
Within a few hours, arsenals that had taken many months, if not years, to build up, were destroyed. However, thousands of shorter-range rockets remain and these are being fired in intense volleys.
Hamas operatives, stunned at the assassination of Jabari, had reason to be even more stunned at the targeting of the rocket storage areas, which revealed the depth to which they had been penetrated by Israeli intelligence.
Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter with The Jerusalem Post and author of the “The Yom Kippur War” and “The Boats of Cherbourg.”