An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday killed a senior military commander of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza. The Israeli army said the strike was the start of an operation to cripple militant organizations that fire rockets into civilian areas of southern Israel. Several more strikes, which the Israeli military said targeted long-range rocket launching sites, followed. Witnesses and Hamas officials said four other people were killed in the attacks, and several people were injured. It was not immediately clear whether any of the dead or injured were civilians.
The death of a top Hamas leader, Ahmed Jabari, is a military success; and in terms of domestic policy, the Israeli prime minister has received praise even from harsh critics like Ehud Olmert. As the Times of Israel reports, “ ‘By nature of his position, Jabari has been responsible over the past decade for all anti-Israel terror activity emanating from the [Gaza] Strip,’ the Shin Bet security agency said in a statement. Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said Jabari was identified by ‘precise intelligence’ gathered over several months.”
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “Ahmed Jabari was the senior Hamas military figure who was widely credited for ‘professionalizing’ the Hamas rocket operations, masterminding the military take-over of Gaza in 2007, and notoriously, engineering the Gilad Shalit kidnapping operation of 2006. Jabari even accompanied Shalit to the handoff with the Egyptians last year, in what appeared to be a victory lap of sorts. His targeted killing is a huge military success for the Israelis — perhaps the biggest since the assassination of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in 2008.”
He cautions, however, that it is not clear whether a full-scale ground operation will be needed in Gaza. He warns, “The operation is not done yet, however. Israel continues to take out weapons caches and training grounds in Gaza. But the question remains whether the Israelis will conduct a ground invasion. This could greatly complicate what will otherwise be seen as a successful military operation. However, the Israelis may have their reasons for going in. The recent uptick in sophisticated ordnance used against the Israelis may yet prompt Israeli brass to take greater risks to neutralize Hamas in Gaza.”
And an old Middle East hand tells me that “the Israelis are seeking to avoid a land assault. The strikes in the past weeks were a form of messaging to Hamas — knock it off. That failed, rockets continued, so today the Israelis escalated. But still they are avoiding infrastructure, hitting pinpoint high-level Hamas target. Message is to Hamas leadership — knock it off or you are next. This all is with the hope that they will stop and won’t be necessary to go in on the ground.”
In Israel, top military commanders are saying publicly that they are prepared to do what is necessary to eliminate the threat of incoming rockets.
President Obama wasn’t asked and didn’t offer up his views at his press conference on the operation. Perhaps the less said by him, the better.
A final word of caution: Imagine if Hamas’s sponsors in Tehran had a nuclear weapon. Would Israel be able to defend itself from rockets? Would Hamas be given nuclear technology? This should only heighten concern that the president not latch onto a phony deal with Iran that gives the appearance of “success” but leaves the region a nuclear-weapons tinderbox.
UPDATE (5:18 p.m.): The president didn’t address the Gaza attacks. The secretary of state didn’t either. Instead the State Department deputy press secretary put out something in writing late in the afternoon.
It read in part: “We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties.”
That’s fine as far as it goes, but why couldn’t the secretary or the president put this out under her or his name, as if we really meant it and this was a serious concern of the head of our government? I did not receive a response on this point from the deputy press secretary.