He was the de facto ruler of Gaza and represented a revolution that challenged Israel’s right to exist. His involvement in Palestinian terror attacks against Israel led to his assassination. On July 19, 1956, Colonel Musfasa Hafez, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s intelligence chief in what was then Egyptian-controlled Gaza, was killed by an Israeli bomb.
Since then nearly half a century has passed, and Israel’s once measured and secretive policy of targeted assassinations has long since gone global, to Beirut and Paris in the 1970s, Tunis in the 1980s and Malta in the 1990s. But at the end of this long list of targeted killings of terrorists, we are back to where we were in 1956: Gaza’s refugee camps, deep Palestinian frustration, a revolutionary ideology and an endless cycle of violence.
A half-century of targeted assassinations did not solve a single Israeli strategic problem. The challenges we face are deep and structural, and are not embodied in any one person. The Palestinian problem did not disappear, despite the targeted killings of top PLO officials in 1973 in Beirut, of Yasser Arafat’s deputy in Tunis in 1988 or of Islamic Jihad’s leader in Malta in 1995.
Targeted assassinations have proven to be an ineffective deterrent. Previous attempts on the lives of Hamas leaders — such as the director of Hamas’s political bureau, Khaled Mashal, in 1997; the group’s new leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in 2003, and an earlier attempt on Yassin himself last year — did not change the nature of their involvement in terrorism. The 1996 killing of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas terrorist who pioneered suicide bombing, did little to deter many others from following in his footsteps.
Targeted assassinations are not only an ineffective policy tool; they also result in blowback. The 1992 killing of Hezbollah’s secretary general, Abbas Musawi, demonstrates both problems. Musawi was replaced by a far more competent leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and Hezbollah’s revenge attacks against the Jewish community building and Israeli embassy in Argentina led to hundreds of casualties later that decade.
Of course, Israel should defend itself and thwart terrorist attacks, but targeted assassinations further neither of these ends. Israel was always innovative in creating security; it is time to go back to the drawing board and re-think Israel’s strategies.
Then there is the moral problem. Certainly Sheikh Yassin earned his violent exit from this world through his involvement in the deaths of many Israelis, Palestinians and others. Yet in a broader sense, we should be worried by the trigger-happy nature of our response to the second intifada. In the “good old days” of targeted assassinations in the 1970s, decisions were made carefully. A special committee headed by the Israeli prime minister and the attorney general discussed every case in detail. Great effort was made to prevent the killing of innocent people. Though targeted assassinations were employed between 1956 and 2000, they were rare. Hardly any bystanders were ever hit. However, in the current conflict, all this has changed. According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 135 Palestinian militants were killed in targeted assassinations since 2000, along with 90 bystanders, of whom 28 were minors. We just do not value human lives the way we used to. Before long, this will bounce back and hit us too. Early signs of this are already evident: In December 2003, for the first time, the army fired at Jewish Israeli demonstrators near the newly built West Bank security barrier, wounding one person.
Let us not delude ourselves: The killings do not solve problems; they usually create new ones. If we are naive enough to think otherwise, the next half-century will only be a bleaker version of what we have gone through since July 19, 1956.
Ehud Eiran is a senior visiting fellow at Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. candidate in politics at Brandeis University. He served as assistant foreign policy adviser to former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak.