Will targeted killings of Hamas chiefs make any difference?

Marwan Issa may be Israel’s latest hit but there are plenty of others ready to take his place


Marwan Issa (centre) in 2011 with fellow Hamas chiefs Saleh al-Arouri (left) and Ahmed Jabari, both assassinated by Israel

March 12, 2024 16:13

The last known photograph of Marwan Issa, who may or may not have died in an Israeli strike last Saturday night, is from October 2011. It was taken in Gaza City at the celebrations held for the release of Hamas members from Israeli prison as part of the Shalit Deal. Among them was Yihya Sinwar, the undisputed leader of Hamas prisoners who had played a key role in the negotiations leading to exchange of 1,027 Palestinians for one Israeli soldier.

It was a fateful moment where the clock started ticking towards the October 7 attack 12 years later. In his speech at the rally Sinwar promised those still in Israeli prisons that more operations were in store that would secure their release.

In the photograph, Issa, then Hamas’s operations commander, can be seen standing between two other men. To his right was Ahmed Jabari, then the chief of staff of the military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, who had played a key role in capturing and hiding the IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for five years. Earlier that day he had handed Shalit to the Egyptians at the border.

A year later, Jabari was assassinated by Israel in a drone strike in Gaza. Issa took his place as chief of staff, second in the military hierarchy to Mohammed Def.

On Issa’s left in the photograph is Saleh al-Arouri on a rare visit to Gaza. He had been allowed in through Egypt as he has been one of the negotiators as well. Al Arouri was assassinated two and a half months ago in another drone strike, this time in Beirut.

In recent days Israeli officials have taken to describing Al Arouri as “number four in Hamas” and Issa as “number three.” The rankings serve a narrative of an ascending order in which Israel has (perhaps) eliminated the second-couple, and soon the first-couple, Sinwar and Def, will meet a similar fate.

There are a few problems with that narrative. First, Hamas’s hierarchy is far from being so clearly delineated. The veteran “outside” or “political” leadership, with Ismail Haniyeh at the top and other senior members including Khaled Mashal, Mussa Abu Marzouk and Kahlil al-Hayya, is still largely intact.

Second, there still is no confirmation that Issa was indeed killed. If he was, his body is buried deep underground, covered by layers of ruins left by Israeli bunker-busting bombs that hit the compound in the Nuseirat refugee camp. It may take weeks or even months until it is known, one or way or the other, if he was even there. Hamas, even if its commanders know by now, has no interest in disclosing his fate.

Neither is there any certainty that Sinwar or Def can be targeted any time soon. It took Israel more than five months to locate the junior member of their triumvirate. If and when their whereabouts are pinpointed, there will be the dilemma of how to strike at them in the knowledge that they almost certainly have Israeli hostages as “human shields” there with them.

Then there is the third question: how much impact will Issa’s death, if he is indeed dead, have on Hamas and the war in general? Issa, Jabari and Al Arouri are just three names in a long list of senior Hamas leaders and operatives Israel has assassinated over the years, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder, who was killed in an air strike exactly 20 years ago next Friday.

There’s a long ongoing debate within the Israeli security establishment over the efficacy of “targeted assassinations”, which certainly won’t be resolved in the near future. The fact remains that eliminating Yassin and many of Hamas’s leaders and senior operatives didn’t prevent the movement from taking over Gaza in 2007 and building the military structure there which enabled them to launch the October 7 attack.

In recent days, accusations have been hurled back in forth between supporters and critics of the current Israeli government over whether at various times over the past decade, the prime ministers — Benjamin Netanyahu for most of the time and Naftali Bennett for just one year — should have given the order to assassinate Sinwar. Even if they had, would that have prevented October 7?

And now that Al Arouri and perhaps Issa as well are dead, will that make much of a difference?

The two men were key links between Hamas’s military and political structures and were both closely involved in the coordination with other regimes and organisations in the regime — Iran, Hezbollah, Qatar and others. Issa was also the main figure coordinating Hamas’s military operations within Gaza, with Def, the supreme military chief, more of a figurehead. But at this point in the war, Hamas’s fighting forces in Gaza have already been largely decimated and dispersed and most of their field commanders killed. Issa, Def and Sinwar have spent most of the war in hiding, with little daily contact with their remaining cohorts.

As the chief perpetrators of October 7, they will ultimately be tracked down and pay the price, but they have already done their worst and their fate is sealed. Hamas’s future in Gaza is already in the hands of a largely unknown generation of leaders: those who will survive this war.


The outburst by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef last Saturday night at his weekly sermon in the Yazdim shul in Jerusalem wasn’t planned in advance, but nevertheless it was a clear signal of the Charedi leadership’s position on the issue that could bring down the Netanyahu government within weeks.

“If they force us to go into the army, we will all go abroad,” he said. “They have to understand this, all those seculars who don’t understand. They have to understand that without the Torah, without the yeshivas, there would be no existence, there would be no success for the army.”

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge to the rest of Israeli society, he added: “The soldiers succeed only thanks to those who study Torah.”

And as a final insult, “We saw how successful the army was on Simchat Torah [October 7].” I

It was a clear statement of intent, and since then, Rabbi Yosef has been making the rounds of senior rabbis of both the Chasidic and the Lithuanian streams, to receive their enthusiastic endorsements.

The senior rabbis and politicians of the Charedi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have come to terms with the fact that there won’t be an agreed law regulating the exemption of yeshivah students from conscription any time soon. As the Supreme Court has set a deadline in two weeks for such legislation to be proposed, it means that by the end of the month the students will be liable for call-up and the government funding for the yeshivahs will be cut off.

It will be a seismic moment in Israeli politics. It is unlikely the IDF will immediately start sending military police to the yeshivahs to drag students away from their Talmud to basic training — at least there are no plans for that yet. But it will almost certainly mean the Charedi parties leaving the coalition and an end to Netanyahu’s majority. It’s still premature to predict if they will also join a vote to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections.

Netanyahu is the friendliest prime minister they have ever had and even though he has failed to deliver on his promise to perpetuate the exemptions, they are not eager to see him replaced.

But it will mean that Netanyahu will be even more at the mercy of his remaining partners, the far-right on the one side and Benny Gantz’s centrists on the other. It’s hard to see his government lasting much longer under these circumstances.

March 12, 2024 16:13

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