Israeli forces near the Gaza Strip have been placed on high alert, fearing retaliation from the Hamas terror group over the assassination of one of its top military leaders in Gaza on Friday night.
The alert was ordered Saturday by the IDF’s Southern Command.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the killing of Mazen Faqha, a former prisoner in Israel who oversaw Hamas’s efforts to instigate terror attacks in the West Bank, but Hamas leaders have lined up to blame Israel for the killing throughout Saturday. Faqha was freed in the Gilad Shalit exchange deal in 2011; he had been serving multiple life terms for orchestrating a 2002 suicide bombing in which nine Israelis were killed.
At a mass funeral procession for Faqha Saturday afternoon in Gaza City, participants shouted, “Revenge, revenge!”
Hamas’s Gaza Attorney General Ismail Jaber also blamed Israel for the killing of Faqha, who was freed as part of the 2011 deal to release captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and was deported to Gaza.
“This assassination has the clear marks of Mossad,” Jaber said.
Faqha, 38, was killed in an apparently professional hit job when he was shot near his home in the Tel Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City with a handgun equipped with a silencer.
His father, who lives in the West Bank, told a Hamas TV station that Israeli intelligence officers had warned the family three times that his son’s terrorist activity was going to get him killed. “They said Mazen was carrying out attacks against Israel, and that Israel’s arm is long,” he said.
Khalil al-Haya, a deputy to Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, promised retaliation.
“If the enemy thinks that this assassination will change the power balance, then it should know the minds of [Hamas] will be able to retaliate in kind,” he said.
On Friday, al-Haya said that only the Jewish state would have had something to gain from Faqha’s death.
Yet, for all its rhetoric, Hamas has yet to show any firm evidence of Israeli involvement, a fact that may give the organization the political maneuvering room to avoid a dramatic response that could lead to a full-fledged confrontation.
Faqha is from the northern West Bank town of Tubas, where he was arrested in 2002 for helping to plan suicide bombings during the Second Intifada. He was released in October 2011 during the Shalit deal, after which he was expelled to Gaza, where he and fellow West Banker Abd el-Rahman Ghanimat founded the “West Bank section” within the Gaza-based group.
The section was composed of military wing members formerly from the West Bank who were expelled to Gaza. Their task was to bolster Hamas infrastructures in the West Bank, including by means of terror attacks against Israelis. This included sending both funds and instructions to Hamas cells in Hebron, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and elsewhere in a bid to escalate violence and force new rounds of confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. Each area in the West Bank was served by a “regional commander” within the section who sat in Gaza but was originally from the area in question.
According to Israeli intelligence, Faqha and Ghanimat’s “fingerprints” were on many attempted and successful terror attacks emanating from Hamas cells in the West Bank in recent years, a fact that suggests Israel had a clear interest in his removal.
The message: Nobody is safe
Faqha lived and traveled in Gaza without bodyguards or other protection, and was assassinated near his beach-side home. If Israel did indeed carry out the assassination, it may have intended to send a message that Hamas leaders’ apparent belief that they are safe during periods of quiet is incorrect.
It is likely that the entire leadership of the organization is now changing its daily routines, on the assumption that if Faqha could be killed, they are all potential targets. They will have to live surrounded by security, and occasionally changing homes and hideouts – a return to the life that many Hamas leaders from the West Bank were forced to live a decade ago.
This was clearly the message of the killing: that everyone is a potential target.
But that’s doesn’t mean Israel’s alleged responsibility for the killing is obvious or indisputable. The assassins were highly professional, leaving no shred of evidence as to their identities. Indeed, this professionalism – the silencer and the clean disappearance – is the only real evidence pointing to Israeli intelligence agencies. Nothing more.
That lack of clarity means Hamas may decide it can be satisfied in the short term with the sort of threatening declamations issued by the group on Saturday, such as: “No more restraint” or “We won’t permit assassinations to go without a response.”
Hamas’s decision on Saturday not to start shelling Israel in response, shows the group likely does not actually want a war with Israel at this time.
None of this is to suggest the group will refrain from responding to the assassination in due time. Its new Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, is known as a dangerous, unpredictable and uninhibited commander. He may prefer to wait for a moment when Israel will be caught by surprise, and to launch the sorts of operations seen in the past, such as kidnappings or, in a throwback to the previous decade, suicide bombings.
If Hamas launches such attacks, it will likely also attempt to do so without leaving evidence of its involvement, in order to give Israeli leaders the political space to avoid all-out war while still signaling that continued assassinations will be met with painful retaliation.
As one Hamas official said Saturday, Israel was “trying to force a new model of a clandestine war on Hamas, as it has failed in the open war model.” He said Hamas would know how to respond to such tactics.