Wikileaks has released a new document trove in which there is some interesting material related to Israeli counter-terror operations. A CIA report with the chilling title, Best Practices in Counter-Insurgency: Making High-Value Targeting Operations an Effective Counterinsurgency Tool, makes the case for the value of targeted assassinations:
A CIA review of high-value targeting (HVT) programs worldwide suggests that HVT operations can play a useful role when they are part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy. HVT operations are most likely to contribute to successful counterinsurgency outcomes when governments decide on a desired strategic outcome before beginning HVT operations, analyze potential effects and shaping factors, and simultaneously employ other military and nonmilitary counterinsurgency instruments.
Despite the title, the report also notes the pitfalls and drawbacks to such a program, and a number of times points to Israeli intelligence missteps as representative of how these projects fail. The following passage alludes to the period of the Second Intifada, when Israel murdered a number of high-ranking Hamas leaders including Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi, Salah Shehadeh, and Sheikh Ahmed Yassine:
HVT strikes, however, may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if noncombatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent. Because of the psychological nature of insurgency, either side’s actions are less important than how events are perceived by key audiences inside and outside the country, according to an academic expert on counterinsurgency.
Israeli HVT efforts from 2000 to 2002 strengthened solidarity between terrorist groups and bolstered popular support for hardline militant leaders, according to US Embassy officials in Jerusalem and clandestine reporting.
Even the Mossad’s effort to avenge the Munich Olympic terror attack, a project much lauded in Israel and around the world and the subject of a popular film, is called into question:
Following the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics in September 1972 by the Black September faction of the PLO Fatah organization, Israeli leaders initiated a multi-decade effort to eliminate PLO leaders. The subsequent killings of suspected PLO militants across Europe and the Middle East included low-ranking officials with questionable connections to the Munich events, as well as a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, who had no connection to terrorism…
The program’s secrecy prevented its integration with other diplomatic and military initiatives. International pressure following
the July 1973 death of the Moroccan waiter forced Israel to curtail the effort.The PLO had a highly centralized and personality-driven command structure that made it vulnerable to leadership strikes, but the limited number of successful Israeli strikes suggests that group’s strong operational security protected it against the loss of top figures.
In turning its sights from Fatah, a secular Arab movement, to Islamist militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel’s efforts weren’t notably more successful:
In the mid-1990s, Israel’s targeting efforts shifted from secular rejectionist groups to Islamist militant enemies, culminating in a targeted-killings campaign during the Second Intifada. In contrast to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and secular
rejectionist groups, Hamas and Hizballah presented Israel with decentralized command structures, compartmented leadership, strong succession planning, and deep ties to their communities, making the groups highly resilient to leadership losses, according to the International Crisis Group. The absence of other counterinsurgency measures such as amnesty programs limited the HVT programs’ contributions to Israel’s overall security efforts…
I foresee some of Israel’s “friends” here pointing out the many successes of Israel’s targeted murder campaign. They’ll recite the names of ‘vicious killers’ removed from this earth so that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to shed Jewish blood again. To such individuals, knocking off a few score or even a hundred or more leaders of “anti-Israel” Arab groups is a laudable goal.
People holding such views, including Israeli intelligence chiefs, take the short-sighted view that the way to deal with “Arabs” is to periodically mow the grass. Since in their view, there’s no possible long-range solution that is in Israel’s benefit, the best option is to cut down the worst and hope for the best. “Hoping for the best” seems to be one of Israel’s main policy objectives. But it never works. It’s guaranteed to lead to unforeseen, and highly destructive outcomes.
For example, Hassan Nasrallah has proven to be a far more wily and capable leader than Abbas Musawi, the previous Hezbollah leader whom Israel murdered. His defense of Lebanon cost the lives of 150 Israelis during the 2006 war. Mohammed Deif, Hamas’ successor to Ahmed Jabari, led a resilient and robust defense of Gaza during Operation Protective Edge that cost the lives of nearly 60 IDF soldiers. Sheikh Yassine, Hamas’ founder, was succeeded by Khaled Meshal, who has proven a capable, if sometimes embattled political leader of Hamas.
So let’s acknowledge Israel has murdered some of the top leaders of its enemies. In the time it took for a Mossad chief to pour a glass of champagne and toast “l’chaim” to his success, the militant group likely appointed a new leader with even bolder and more ambitious plans than his deceased predecessor.
As I’ve written here numerous times, aside from the moral stain and violation of international law (considerations Israel ignores), targeted murder doesn’t work. As the CIA report noted above, it enables younger leaders to rise through the ranks and make even more effective contributions. It rallies the masses to support the resistance and harden them against the (in their view) Israeli oppressor. Despite numerous attempts, Israel has never shaken Palestinian or Lebanese faith in their respective resistance movements. This method fails almost every time and will continue doing so, which marks the definition of insanity: doing something that failed repeatedly in hopes that the next time it won’t.
Keep your eyes peeled for a major story on an important Israeli intelligence agency, which I’ve pitched to a media outlet. It should be published very soon.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.