- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
Hamas is claiming that one of its leaders, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, was killed by Israeli operatives in his hotel in Dubai on January 20 and threatening a response "in the appropriate place and time." The story is all over the Arab media, in many cases as a red-bannered breaking news story. Israel does not yet have a comment that I’ve seen. Hamas says that UAE authorities are cooperating in the investigation, and the first reports out of Dubai are that the killers were European and part of a "professional criminal gang". Whatever the truth of the incident, the alleged assassination threatens to disrupt the uneasy ceasefire which has held between Hamas and Israel over the last year, and to further strain the already dismal prospects of either Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, attempts to alleviate the suffering of Gaza, or a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Let’s hope that it doesn’t spark a new cycle of violence.
The de facto cease-fire between Hamas and Israel has been no secret. Israelis have often pointed to these efforts by Hamas to prevent attacks against Israel over the last year as evidence that Operation Cast Lead succeeded in establishing deterrence. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently said, for instance, "The deterrence achieved during Operation Cast Lead still exists, and it is strong." Palestinian Authority (Ramallah) Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad similarly raised some eyebrows at Davos yesterday by highlighting that in practice Hamas and the PA agreed on security: "it is clear that Hamas has been trying to prevent attacks on Israel, it is no secret, it has been trying to do that, it is not saying it is doing it but it is doing it.” This argument has been used against Hamas by its Arab rivals such as Egypt and the PA, who have pointed to the de facto ceasefire to mock their claims to be "resisting" Israel. Israelis, including Barak, have argued repeatedly that what rocket fire there has been from Gaza has been due to the difficulties Hamas has faced in controlling more radical groups — not from Hamas itself.
Why would Israel put this de facto ceasefire at risk by an assassination? First off, it’s impossible to say at this point whether they did — no evidence has yet been presented to back up Hamas’s claims. Much of the Arab public immediately believed it, though, as it immediately recalled the botched operation against Khaled Meshaal in Amman a decade ago, as well as the assassinations of leading Hamas figures such as Ahmed Yassin and Abd al-Aziz al-Rentissi in 2004. That doesn’t mean that it’s true. But since Hamas has already gone public with the accusation and promised revenge, it may spark off a dangerous cycle anyway.
What if it’s true? There should be questions about the legitimacy and morality of assassinating one’s enemies abroad, one would think. But that seems unlikely in this day and age, when the United States openly brags of its Predator strikes, discusses them primarily in terms of whether or not they "work" as opposed to whether or not they are legal or morally acceptable, and muses about whether or not to target Anwar al-Awlaki (the radical Islamist in Yemen who is also an American citizen). The international norms against such assassinations have been thoroughly degraded by the Global War on Terror, and the Obama administration has escalated rather than reined in such measures.
So the real debate is more likely to be about the logic of the assassination and whether it "works." But it’s not obvious what that would even mean in this context — it makes little strategic sense. If Israelis and the PA both acknowledge that Hamas has been controlling attacks against Israel from Gaza, what is gained by a provocation such as this? Would it have "worked" if Hamas fails to respond, demonstrating its impotence? Would it have "worked" if Hamas does respond, killing innocent Israeli civilians and possibly triggering another round of horrific violence? Would it have "worked" if a Hamas retaliation (or even an unfulfilled threat of retaliation) offers a pretext for maintaining or intensifying the blockade of Gaza? At this point I’m seeing a blizzard of Arab commentary on the subject but no real consensus. But smaller things have sparked disastrous confrontations in the past, and I only hope that this one does not.
UPDATE: as a friend points out, "it makes no sense" hardly rules it out. Just looking back at the botched 1997 Israeli assassination attempt against Khaled Meshaal, as masterfully chronicled in Paul McGeough’s Kill Khaled, is enough to show that. The Meshaal episode, also authorized by a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, targeted the rising Hamas leader on the streets of Israel’s closest partner in the Arab world using agents holding foreign (Canadian) passports. King Hussein was so furious and humiliated that he demanded not only an antidote to the poison used on Meshaal but also the release of a number of Hamas leaders from Israeli prisons (including Shaykh Ahmed Yassin). It would have been difficult to make a sensible case for that attempt either. So we’ll just see how this one unfolds, I’m afraid.