Hamas has suffered a fair number of blows since the start of the conflict with Israel. Hundreds of gunmen from its military wing have been killed, many of its tunnels have been destroyed, and its rocket stores have been depleted. But the overnight strike on a home in the Tel al-Sultan district of Rafah was the harshest blow – militarily and in terms of morale – that it has sustained since the start of Operation Protective Edge.
Three of its most senior commanders in the southern area of the Strip were assassinated in the Israeli airstrike, in an operation that, for the first time, demonstrated that Hamas has been penetrated by Israeli intelligence, enabling the targeting of its most senior command echelons.
This was not just another strike, not just another assassination. The killing of the three constituted an indication that something in the intelligence discipline at the very top of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades has cracked.
The Shin Bet, as the intelligence behind the strike, and the IDF, as the operational arm, targeted the trio in a building in a crowded Rafah neighborhood on one of the heaviest days of fighting thus far. Thus this was a very different strike from the one at the start of the Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 when the Hamas military commander, Ahmed Jabari, was assassinated in a surprise attack that marked the beginning of that operation. Given that the fighting had re-escalated since Tuesday, and that Israel was known to be trying to hit the Hamas military leadership, the three had taken every possible precaution to evade Israeli intelligence. Those precautions simply were not good enough.
It can be assumed that whether or not Muhammad Deif is still alive, those members of the Hamas military leadership who have survived are now desperately trying to figure out what went wrong. How could it be that after long weeks in which Israel was unable to get to any of the heads of the military wing, now, within 48 hours, the Shin Bet located one of Deif’s hideouts and killed three other members of the Hamas general staff?
It should be stressed again: Two of the three were not mere senior commanders of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Muhammad Abu Shamala, the “head of the southern command” and Raed al-Attar, the commander of the Rafah area, were part of the founding generation of the Hamas military wing — along with Deif and several others who are no longer with us, including Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh and Emad Akel. They were among Deif’s closest brothers-in-arms — long-term veterans with experience and knowledge that cannot be easily replaced.
Abu Shamala and al-Attar are tied to almost every major attack in and from the Rafah area since 2001. These include the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit on a tunnel raid into Israel in which two other soldiers were killed, and even the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers on the Gaza-Sinai-Israel border two years ago. Thus the two had tangled not only with Israel, but also with Egypt, which knew of their ties to terrorist organizations in the Sinai.
The elimination of the three leaves a big hole in the Hamas command structure in southern Gaza. They will be replaced, but not with people of similar stature.
Their colleagues in the military leadership — Marwan Issa, Muhammad Sinwar, and whatever may remain of Deif — will try to return to business as usual as soon as possible given the pressure under which Hamas now finds itself. That is to say Hamas will make every effort, every desperate effort, to carry out attacks — and that includes in the West Bank and in Israel.
In the next few days, Hamas will try to use every military means at its disposal: the rockets it has saved for a “moment of truth,” any of its cross-border attack tunnels that may remain, West Bank suicide bombers — anything to prove to Israel that Hamas has not been defeated and is still standing.
The indirect negotiations on a long-term ceasefire are thus unlikely to resume in the next few days, and an end to the conflict is nowhere on the horizon. Hamas will not want to come to talks in Cairo or anywhere else from a position of weakness, and will seek first of all to avenge the assassinations.
The elimination of the three and the attempt to kill Deif — whose fate is still unclear — paves the way for a return of the Hamas political leadership, in Gaza and overseas, to a more central role. People like Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh, who needed authorization from Deif, al-Attar and Abu Shamala for every move, will now take a more central role in the leadership of the campaign against Israel, with fewer competitors. If Deif has been neutralized, there are no sufficiently senior figures in the military wing to contradict the orders of Haniyeh or Mashaal.
And ultimately the Hamas political leadership will have to decide how long to continue a conflict that is bringing destruction and devastation on Gaza and endangering Hamas’s survival. It will have to determine whether and when the time has come to end the fire, even at the cost of a blow to Hamas’s public standing.