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27
Mar
2017

Does the Assassination of a Senior Hamas Member in Gaza Mean Escalation?


The assassination of Mazen Fuqha, a senior member of Hamas’ military wing, in Gaza City on March 24, shocked the movement’s leadership, which is currently busy preparing for the end of internal elections and the approval of a political document that would redefine the central principles and essence of Hamas, given the regional changes in recent years.

No one has claimed responsibility for the death of Fuqha, who was freed as part of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal and was exiled to Gaza. According to eyewitness accounts, he was shot dead by two unknown persons near his home in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City who used a pistol with a silencer. The hospital reported that he had been shot four times in the head.

Sources in Hamas reject outright the possibility that Fuqha was assassinated due to internal power struggles within Hamas related to the internal elections. Instead, Hamas claims that Israel had an interest in eliminating Fuqha because he recently sought to activate Hamas cells in the West Bank in preparation for attacks inside of Israel.

In interviews with the media, Fuqha’s father claimed that he had received phone calls from the Israeli security services, who warned him that his son was engaging in terror activities. The father also said Israeli security personnel had visited his home in the West Bank town of Tubas and emphasized the seriousness of his son’s actions.

Mazen Fuqha is from Tubas near Jenin in the northern West Bank. In 2002, he operated a cell that carried out a suicide bombing attack on a bus in Meron that killed nine Israelis and injured 40 others. Fuqha was arrested and sentenced to nine life terms, before his release in the Shalit deal.

A Blow to Hamas Prestige

While it is not clear who killed Fuqha – Israel did not take responsibility for the act – in the Palestinian territories, the assassination is believed to be a successful attack executed by Israel, which constitutes a serious blow to Hamas prestige at the peak of their internal elections.

It represents a killing in the heart of Hamas-controlled Gaza under the noses of the Hamas security forces.

Fuqha moved freely around Gaza without bodyguards, demonstrating the complacency of senior Hamas figures who were convinced that they were safe from any interference. This sense of security for Hamas officials has now been shattered. From now on, Hamas officials will begin to move around with armed escorts and security guards.

Palestinian commentators compare the killing of Fuqha with the killing of Hamas aviation engineer Muhammad Zawari in Tunisia and Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. They also see it as similar to the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas explosives “engineer” killed by Israel in Gaza in 1996.

Hamas believes that Fuqha was murdered by collaborators with Israel. Yet Hamas has not clarified whether they believe the killing was due to his past crimes or whether it represents a new stage of targeted killings that Israel is carrying out in order to thwart new terror attacks.

A Hamas security source told the Majd website on March 25, 2017, that Israel was trying to create a “new equation” in the war against Hamas, in view of Hamas’ recent failures, but that Hamas would act to overcome it.

Fuqha was released together with Yahya Sinwar in the Shalit deal. Sinwar was recently elected as the new Hamas leader of Gaza. Now, many view Sinwar as the next possible target. He is known for his radical line against Israel, and Fuqha’s killing poses a leadership challenge to Sinwar, who must now decide on a response against Israel.

Until now, Sinwar had been very careful not to violate the cease-fire agreement brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas after the 2014 Gaza war.

The cease-fire was maintained despite recent Israeli air force strikes in Gaza in response to the firing of six rockets by Salafist-jihadi groups. Sinwar warned Israel about the intensity of the response, but did not actually escalate the situation on the ground.

 An Attempt to Void the “Shalit Deal”

There are elements within Hamas who view Fuqha’s killing as crossing a “red line.” According to their assessment, Israel has been frustrated by the impasse in dealing with any new prisoner exchange deal, and is therefore trying to void the meaning of the “Shalit deal.”

Hamas has stipulated that Israel must release all those who were re-arrested after being released in the “Shalit deal.” Since 2011, Israel has arrested 75 of those who were freed, 64 of whom were sent back to prison after returning to terrorist activity. Senior security sources explained that Israel is not prepared to grant immunity to anyone involved in terrorism. One of the released prisoners, Radwan Nayef, was sentenced to two life sentences for terrorist attacks after his release from prison.

Hamas also claims that Israel is behind the FBI’s demand that Jordan extradite the terrorist Ahlam Tamimi, who took part in the attack at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem and was released in the Shalit deal.

Meanwhile, Hamas is warning all those released in the Shalit deal to act with caution because they could be targeted by Israel.

How Will Hamas Respond?

Those who killed Fuqha left no fingerprints, and therefore it is difficult to connect Israel directly to the act. However, all the organizations in Gaza believe this was an Israeli operation. Therefore, Hamas and its military wing are promising revenge against Israel.

Salah Bardawil, a member of the Hamas political bureau, said that Israel had no reason to rejoice because someone would avenge the death of Fuqha, just as Hamas took revenge in 2002 for the assassination of Salah Shehadeh, former commander of Hamas’ military-terrorist wing.

The likelihood that Hamas will start firing rockets at Israel in response is low, since Hamas is busy with internal elections and rebuilding in Gaza. In recent days, the Palestinian government has begun to distribute $40 million, which Saudi Arabia has donated, to hundreds of families in Gaza to enable them to rebuild their homes that were damaged in the 2014 war. Rocket fire into Israel would result in a strong Israeli response and another round of fighting that is not currently in Hamas’ interest.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the military wing of Hamas will respond with terrorist acts perpetrated by its “dormant cells” in the West Bank, in attacks against Israelis living there or inside the Green Line. This underlines the importance of tightening the security coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces.

The Israel Defense Forces are preparing, in any case, for the possibility of attacks ahead of the Passover holiday, and now it is essential to be vigilant.

Hamas believes that collaborators with Israel in Gaza aided in the assassination. So it is quite possible that in the coming days we will see executions of suspected collaborators, in order to send a message of deterrence and demonstrate that Hamas security forces are in control of the situation and are able to capture the collaborators.

Hamas is also speaking for the first time about a response that would include harming a senior Israeli figure or a senior IDF officer on the border with Gaza.

Moreover, one should pay attention to statements made by senior Hamas figure Ahmad Bahar, who warned that “all fronts are open to Hamas’ military wing, which will respond in the right place and at the right time.” This could mean that it is quite possible that in order to surprise Israel with a successful attack, Hamas will deviate from its policy and carry out a revenge attack against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, just as Hizbullah has done.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

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