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Targeted Killings: Bridging Ends and Means

In response to both the severe increase in planning and perpetration of terrorist attacks emanating from the Gaza Strip last month (March 2011), the Israeli security apparatus has once again unleashed its strategy of targeted killings. Most strikes have been aimed at Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. By 1 March, Hamas and other smaller Palestinian organizations were responsible for firing over 40 rockets and mortars into Israel.[2] However, by mid-March the number of rocket and mortar attacks increased exponentially. On 19 March over 50 mortars were fired into Israel within a 15-minute period. Throughout the following 11 days, an additional 40 rockets were fired at Israel, including the 122mm Grad missile at the southern cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon, Ashdod, among other smaller communities. Israel’s response has been to target both perpetrators of these attacks, as well as rocket capabilities and storage depots in the Gaza Strip. While new and still uncertain defensive measures are being introduced in order to counter rocket fire, specifically the employment of short-range mobile air defense systems (the “Iron Dome”), the question that must be asked is, can a sustained campaign of targeted killings temporarily solve the problem? In other words, if the policy of the Israeli government is to reach a condition whereas a cessation of violence or an acceptable level of reduction in violence has been attained, can targeted killings achieve this goal? This brief article purports that a strategy of physical attrition against members of Hamas is the most effective way to degrade and deter Hamas’ capabilities and possibly the organization’s motivation for carrying out attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

The fact is that Israel’s strategy of targeted killings have proven extremely effective, even if only temporarily. Targeted killings — or what are known in Hebrew as Sikulim Memukadim (Focused Deterrence or Thwarting) — as carried out by the IDF against Hamas have proven to be a strategy capable of reaching policy objectives. For the purposes of clarity, this article views strategy as that which necessarily bridges “ends” (policy) and “means” (tactics). Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Israeli targeted killings have been directed at Hamas. Hamas is not a diminutive or unelaborate ‘resistance movement’ using slings and stones against a powerful Israeli military. Hamas’ capabilities include 40-km range rockets, which during the Gaza War were able to reach deep into Israel-proper, such as reaching the southern coastal city of Ashkelon.[3] The organization also contains 81mm mortars[4] and on the authority of other reports,[5] 4,000 RPGs, APCs (possibly BRDM-2s, which could be a variant) at least 120 tons of high explosives, American-manufactured M-16s, American-manufactured RPGs, IEDs, anti-tank missiles[6] (possibly the S5K air-to-ground missiles,[7] and possible Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).[8] Hamas, more than any other Palestinian group is capable of using or threatening violence for political ends.

During the Palestinian Armed Rebellion of 2000-2005, the IDF, with assistance from other state agencies, engaged in over 200 targeted killing operations, which included members from all armed Palestinian organizations. However, it was Hamas that bore the brunt of Israeli targeted killings and as such, the organization suffered the most from this strategy. Many of Hamas’ top leadership from each of the organization’s wings — including founding members— were removed from the conflict via targeted killings. The constant application of targeted strikes carried out by the IDF against Hamas during the five-year armed rebellion seem to show that the strategy was effective at times, which is to say that the strategy served the policy, or at the very least did not undermine it. Leaders, engineers, and ‘foot soldiers’ were constantly targeted and by as early as 2003 and into the following year, Hamas, and others, began calling for “lulls” (tahadiyya). According to a BBC report, “Palestinian militant leaders said they would only honour a ceasefire agreement if Israel ended the killings.”[9] Hamas’ request for the IDF to halt its strategy of targeted killings is one clear piece of evidence to support the notion that Hamas was afflicted by the strikes. However, other counterterrorism stratagems and tactics against Hamas also played a direct role in the reduction of attacks against Israelis, such as the security fence and military incursions to disrupt militant activity and infrastructure.[10] While this amalgamation of targeted strikes and other counter measures makes it difficult to gauge the exact efficaciousness of targeted killings, what is understood is that in a specific time and place and against highly specific targets, the strategy was effective. The measure of effectiveness is not only witnessed by the severe decrease in terrorist attacks, which is also attributable to other CT measures but also in the fact that Hamas and others openly admitted to their potency and success.

While it is debatable as to whether or not Israelis were able to deter motivation, they were able to attain a certain level of degradation of Hamas, physically and psychologically by eliminating key actors. The result was a reduction in capabilities to perpetrate terrorist attacks. Every targeted killing of a leader, engineer, or even ‘foot soldier’ affected Hamas’s capabilities, which may explain why even with an increase in Hamas-coordinated attacks, deaths from those attacks were greatly reduced. The success of the strategy lay in the clear level of degradation of Hamas. The loss of engineers caused a decline in organizational capabilities to perpetrate effective terrorist attacks. The focus on targeted killings against the leadership of Hamas caused a decline in both their ability to lead and conduct terrorism and it caused a decline in morale. The more that leaders are forced underground, the less time they have for the planning and engagement in terrorism. The reason that Israeli targeted killings as carried out during the five-year armed rebellion can be viewed as successful is in the simple fact that the strategy fulfilled its part of the policy. In the end, Hamas was compelled to call for a “lull”, which is the closest condition to a ceasefire that Israel could have hoped for at the time. Ultimately, it is the policy — the sought political condition — that matters most and during the armed rebellion targeted killings never undermined policy.

The 2000-2005 Palestinian Armed Rebellion is just one conflict in which the Israelis utilized a strategy of targeted killings as a “way” to an “end” via “means”. Targeted killings were also employed in the 2008-2009 Gaza War and in the years since. The question remains the same: was the military’s contribution to a strategy of targeted killings serving Israeli policy? To answer this, a number of questions need to be asked. First, has Israel’s overall policy towards Hamas been altered since the end of the armed rebellion in 2005 and Hamas’ subsequent rise to power? The overall policy objective towards Hamas, in fact, remains the same: the setting of a condition whereas a cessation of armed violence exists, or at the very least an acceptable level of reduction in violence.

In the Gaza War, targeted killings were employed to a far lesser extent than during the armed rebellion. The reason is two-fold: the conflict was short-lived and most Hamas leaders went underground. However, the strikes that did occur irrefutably strained the organization. Those targeted were high-ranking, influential members that are not easy to replace. The removal of any senior, veteran member of a terrorist organization is never a negative event.[11]

On 1 January 2009, an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of the “fighting sheik” Nizar Rayyan in Jabalya, Gaza. Rayyan was a high-ranking political leader and senior religious authority. He advocated for suicide attacks and mentored the attackers, including his own son. He defended the use of women as suicide bombers and he was adamantly opposed to any peace agreement with Israel, stating: “We will never recognize Israel…There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination.”[12]

On 15 January 2009, just two weeks after Rayyan’s death, the Israelis successfully targeted Hamas’ ‘Interior Minister’, Said Siam.[13] The attacks also killed Siam’s son and his brother. Two other Hamas members, the head of Hamas’ interior security service, Salah Abu Sharkh, and a local Hamas leader, Mahmoud Abu Watfah were also killed. This was a major strategic success for the Israelis, as one strike eliminated at least three leaders of a terrorist organization.

Three other Hamas commanders were also killed during the Gaza War. Jamal Mamduch, head of the Gaza City battalion was killed in an airstrike. Abu Zakaria al-Jamal, commander of the rocket-launching detachment in Gaza City, was killed in an IAF airstrike on his house.[14] Amir Mansi, allegedly an expert in the utilization of Grad rockets was also killed. Mansi was killed when he personally went to fire rockets. His engagement in combat was a result of Hamas members refusing to continue fighting.[15] As Guy Aviad has noted, “its fighters avoided frontal confrontations with the IDF and fled into the constructed interior while leaving much military equipment behind.”[16]

Targeted killings affected many of the other senior Hamas leaders, as they remained underground during the Gaza War and the organization was degraded as a result of these attacks, coupled with the elimination of “complete battalions.”[17] These targeted strikes represent nothing less than clear strategic successes for Israel’s security apparatus, which ultimately led to the attainment of policy objectives: a cessation or at the very least, a drastic reduction of armed violence. That is, targeted killings did in fact bridge ends to means. Prior to the Gaza War, more than 10,000 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel; in 2008 alone nearly 4,000 projectiles were launched into Israeli territory. That number decreased to just 300 projectiles for the whole of 2009. Rocket attacks continue but nowhere near the level that once existed. Clearly, other counterterrorism stratagems and tactics played crucial roles. However, targeted killings continue to represent the most influential and certainly the most personal strategy to compel Hamas to bow to Israel’s political intentions.

By the end of the three-week war, Israelis emerged successful. The success is gauged by the aftereffects of the war, not by the destruction of Hamas, which was never the objective. The goal was to halt rocket fire and reach a cessation of violence. Both were achieved to an acceptable level, albeit temporarily. Hamas’ capabilities were severely damaged as a result of Israel’s massive use of force, which focused on specific Hamas targets. Prior to the Gaza War, over 10,000 rockets and mortars were fired into Israeli territory. Following the Gaza War, Israel achieved a greater level of deterrence. However, full deterrence was not reached, nor was it expected. As reported by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center:

“In the two years since Operation Cast Lead there has been a significant reduction in the extent and severity of terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the other Palestinian terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip. That created a new security situation, and improvement on that before Operation Cast Lead. The decrease in terrorism reflects Israel’s power, restored by Operation Cast Lead, to deter the terrorist organizations. However, even the current level of rocket and mortar shellfire and the frequent attacks on IDF forces along the border fence disrupt the daily lives of the western Negev residents.”[18]

March 2011, by far, saw more rocket and mortar attacks fired into Israel since the Gaza War. While a number of strategies and tactics have been employed to counter terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, the reemergence of Israel’s strategy of targeted killing represents the most effective. Effectiveness refers to both the measurable political and security aftereffects of a targeted killing and in how effective the action truly is as a way of eliminating individuals in pursuit of policy objectives. Following Hamas’ barrage of rockets and mortars into Israel in March, the murder of a family in Itamar, and a bombing of a Jerusalem bus in which a British woman was killed, Israel responded with a number of targeted operations. By 27 March, Hamas and other Palestinian armed organizations once again called for a ceasefire if Israel agreed to stop its targeted strikes in the Strip.[19] The end of March saw the end of the current cannonade of rocket attacks, at least for now.

Despite a drop in rocket and mortar attacks, Israelis are still continuing with targeted killings. Some may question whether or not this undermines policy, given that Hamas has called for a ceasefire. After all, the strategy should be reined in once policy objectives have been reached. However, Hamas is engaging in more than attacks using rockets and mortars. The organization is allegedly planning kidnapping operations. On 2 April, the IDF with the assistance of Israel’s internal security service targeted and destroyed a vehicle containing three Hamas members who were allegedly part of a team readying to partake in the abduction of Israelis during the Jewish holiday of Passover.[20] A strategy of targeted killings is employed against anyone engaged in the use or threat of violence against Israeli interests — rocket, mortar, suicide bombings, kidnapping, or any other means of violence for the ends of policy. 

The Bottom Line

The IDF will not cease to employ a strategy of targeted killings, so long as Palestinian militant organizations continue to engage in or threaten to use violence against Israeli interests. First, the strategy is legal under Israeli national law, as set forth by the High Court of Justice’s 2006 ruling in HCJ 769/02. If the Israeli security apparatus cannot apprehend terrorists, which is increasingly difficult, and if all other avenues have been exhausted, the IDF can legally target an individual or group of individuals with the intent to kill. Second, targeted killings work, at least in Israel’s case. Hamas’ calls for ceasefires and “lulls” provide the clearest evidence. Third, after weeks of targeted operations in March, rocket and mortar attacks have nearly ceased. This is, in the main, a direct result of Israel targeting terrorists and their infrastructure and very little to do with traveling down the diplomatic path. Most importantly, the tactics and strategy never undermined Israel’s overall policy towards Palestinian militant organizations. In the end, it was a strategy of physical attrition that once again proved to be the most effective method in dealing with terrorism: the killing and capturing of the enemy.


[1] A.E. Stahl is a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT, Herzlyia), the Publisher of Infinity Journal, and a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London.
[2] “Gaza: Stop Rocket Attacks Against Israel Civilians”, Human Rights Watch, 1 March 2011,
[3] Note: Some sources call the 40-km range rocket the WS-1E (Chinese) or Grad-model Katyusha. Yaakov Katz, “From Asia, with explosives: Rockets that hit Beersheba were manufactured in China”, Jerusalem Post, 1 January 2009; Hamas Rockets”, Global Security, 2010
[4] Yossi Melman,,“Robbing Sderot of defense from rockets”, Haaretz, 7 February 2010
[5] Tim Butcher,, “Hamas fighters now a well-organised force”, Telegraph, 5 January 2009
[6] “Three more IDF soldiers killed in fighting in Gaza Strip”, Haaretz, 9 January 2009,
[7] Note: this is a questionable source: Ben Tzi Gidalyahu,, “Hamas Terrorists Attack with Russian Anti-Tank Missiles”, Israel National News
[8] “Israel, Gaza: Heavier Fighting Around Gaza City”, Stratfor Global Intelligence, 11 January 2009; “Hamas couldn’t fire smuggled Stingers against Israelis due to embedded ID system”, World Tribune, 2 April 2009,; “To the report of possible MANPADs manufacture by terrorist organizations”, Civil Research Council, January-February 2006
[9] “Israel’s ‘targeted killings’”, BBC, 17 April 2004,
[10] See Hillel Frisch, “(The) Fence or Offense? Testing the Effectiveness of ‘The Fence’ in Judea and Samaria”, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 75 and Yoram Schweitzer, “The Rise and Fall of Suicide Bombings in the Second Intifada”, Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Volume 13, Number 3, 2010.
[11] A.E. Stahl and William F. Owen, “Targeted Killings Work”, Infinity Journal, IssueNo. 1, Winter 2010, page 12.
[12] “Obituary: Nizar Rayyan.” BBC. 1 January 2009.
[13] Hanan Greenberg, “Israel says killed Hamas interior minister”, YNET News, 1 January 2009,,7340,L-3656955,00.html
[14] “Hamas commander killed in Gaza”, YNET News, 3 January 2009,,7340,L-3649466,00.html
[15] Yaakov Katz, “Defense officials: IDF likely to expand Gaza op”, Jerusalem Post, 11 January 2009,
[16] Guy Aviad, “Hamas’ Military Wing in the Gaza Strip”, Military and Strategic Affairs, Volume 1, Number 1, April 2009, page 11.
[17] Op. Cit. Yaakov Katz, ““Defense officials: IDF likely to expand Gaza op.”
[18] “Terrorism from the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead Data, Type and Trends”, Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 17 March 2011,
[19] “Gaza militant groups agree Israel ceasefire, says Hamas”, BBC, 27 March 2011,
[20] Elior Levy, “IDF hits Gaza terror cell; 3 killed”, YNET News, 2 April 2011,,7340,L-4050912,00.html