Israel Plans to Kill Hamas Leaders Around the World After War
The assassination campaign would be an extension of Israel’s decadeslong clandestine operations that have become the subject of both Hollywood legend and worldwide condemnation. Israeli assassins have hunted Palestinian militants in Beirut while dressed as women, and killed a Hamas leader in Dubai while disguised as tourists. Israel has used a car bomb to assassinate a Hezbollah leader in Syria and a remote-controlled rifle to kill a nuclear scientist in Iran, according to former Israeli officials.
For years, countries such as Qatar, Lebanon, Iran, Russia and Turkey have provided Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, with a measure of protection. And Israel has at times refrained from targeting the Palestinian militants to avoid creating diplomatic crises.
The new plans would mark a second chance for Netanyahu, who ordered a botched 1997 attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan. The well-documented attempt instead led to the release of Hamas’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
To the consternation of some Israeli officials who want the latest plans to remain a mystery, Netanyahu telegraphed his intentions in a nationwide address on Nov. 22.
“I have instructed the Mossad to act against the heads of Hamas wherever they are,” he said, referring to Israel’s foreign-intelligence service.
Members of Israel’s war cabinet, from left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz. Photo: pool/Reuters
In the same address, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas leaders are living on “borrowed time.”
“They are marked for death,” he said. “The struggle is worldwide, both the terrorists in Gaza and those who fly in expensive planes.”
While Israel typically tries to keep such efforts secret, the nation’s leaders have shown few reservations about revealing their intentions to hunt down everyone responsible for the Oct. 7 attack, just like they did to those responsible for the Palestinian terrorist attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Can Hamas survive as an organization following the war with Israel? Join the conversation below.
Israel is already working to kill or capture Hamas leaders inside Gaza, the officials said. The question now for Israeli leaders isn’t about whether to try to kill Hamas leaders elsewhere in the world, but where—and how, the officials said.
The evolving plans are an extension of Israel’s war in Gaza and a reflection of its intentions to ensure that Hamas can never again pose a serious threat to Israel—just as the U.S. led a global coalition against Islamic State militants who set up a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria. As part of the effort, Israel is also looking at whether it could forcibly expel thousands of low-level Hamas fighters from Gaza as a way to shorten the war.
Targeted killings abroad can violate international law and run the risk of blowback from nations in which assassins operate without their permission. In practice, however, Israel and others have pursued targeted killings and weathered the repercussions.
Israel’s plans to target Hamas leaders began to take shape shortly after Oct. 7, when Hamas militants carried out a brazen cross-border attack that Israel said killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians. More than 200 others, including American and Europeans holding dual Israeli citizenship, were abducted and taken back to Gaza.
Khaled Meshaal, seen at his mother’s funeral in Jordan seven years ago, is an Israeli target. Photo: jamal nasrallah/European Pressphoto Agency
Some Israeli officials wanted to launch an immediate campaign to kill Meshaal and other Hamas leaders living abroad, the officials said. The officials were especially incensed by a video of Meshaal, and other Hamas leaders, including its top political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, celebrating and praying at one of their offices while watching live news coverage of the Oct. 7 attacks.
Israel isn’t known to have carried out any targeted-killing operations in Qatar, and doing so after Oct. 7 could have torpedoed continuing efforts to negotiate the release of those held hostage, the officials said. Those concerns helped temper efforts to immediately embark on the assassination campaign, but the planning continues, they said.
Qatar has become the central hub for the hostage talks, with the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, meeting CIA chief William Burns in Doha earlier this week for more discussions. Doha has helped to secure the release of dozens of Israeli hostages held by Gaza militants in return for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. More than 130 hostages remain in Gaza, according to Israel’s account.
Netanyahu’s vow to hunt down Hamas leaders around the world has sparked a debate among former intelligence officials.
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy. Photo: Tony Bock / Toronto Star via Getty Images
Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad director, called it ill-advised. Killing Hamas leaders won’t eliminate the threat, he said. It has the potential to instead inflame the group’s followers and accelerate creation of even worse threats.
“Pursuing Hamas on a worldwide scale and trying to systematically remove all its leaders from this world is a desire to exact revenge, not a desire to achieve a strategic aim,” said Halevy, who called the plan “far-fetched.”
Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli general who once led the military’s intelligence agency, said the campaign “is what justice demands.”
“All the Hamas leaders, all those who participated in the attack, who planned the attack, who ordered the attack, should be brought to justice or eliminated,” Yadlin said. “It’s the right policy.”
Perhaps no other nation has Israel’s experience in carrying out worldwide assassination campaigns. Since World War II, Israel has conducted more than 2,700 such operations, according to the book “Rise and Kill First,” by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman.
Even before Israel was founded in 1948, Jewish militants killed European diplomats who were involved in the British administration of Mandatory Palestine. In the 1960s, Israeli spies used letter bombs to target former Nazi Germany scientists helping Egypt develop rockets.
The campaigns have sometimes backfired.
A demonstrator in Lebanon displays a photo of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated in Syria in 2008. Photo: Marwan Naamani /Getty Images
In 1997, Netanyahu, then serving his first term as prime minister, ordered Israeli spies to kill Meshaal, a Hamas founder who was then living in Jordan. The Israeli team entered Jordan posing as Canadian tourists and attacked Meshaal outside the Hamas political office in Amman. One Israeli assassin sprayed a toxin into Meshaal’s ear but he was captured along with another member of the team before they could escape.
Meshaal fell into a coma, and Jordan threatened to terminate its peace treaty with Israel. Then-President Bill Clinton pressed Netanyahu to end the crisis by sending his Mossad chief to Amman with the antidote that saved Meshaal’s life. Israel then secured the freedom of its operatives in Jordan by agreeing to release Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, and 70 other Palestinian prisoners.
Meshaal later described the failed assassination attempt as a “turning point” that helped empower Hamas.
Israel continued its assassination campaign against Hamas for years.
In 2010, a team of Israeli operatives using forged European passports flew to Dubai, where they masqueraded as tourists while awaiting the arrival of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founder of the Hamas military wing who led the group’s efforts to buy weapons.
Mourners including Khaled Meshaal, bottom left, marched with the coffin of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in 2010. Photo: Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press
Surveillance video later captured members of the team, dressed as tennis players, following Mabhouh to his room, where the Israelis paralyzed and then suffocated the Hamas leader. While it initially appeared that Mabhouh had died of natural causes, Dubai officials eventually identified the hit team and accused Israel of the assassination.
It took years to repair the damage to Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates.
It was the deadly Palestinian militant attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics that cemented the nation’s embrace of covert assassinations as a tool of government policy.
Palestinian gunmen with a group known as Black September took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in the Olympic Village, leading to a two-day standoff that ended with a failed rescue attempt by West German police. All 11 Israeli hostages were killed.
In response, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered Israeli spies to hunt down and kill all Palestinian militants involved in the attack. The covert campaign was dubbed Operation Wrath of God and became the subject of an Oscar-nominated 2005 Steven Spielberg movie.
Ehud Barak, pictured in 2012, took part in a campaign to hunt down Palestinian militants abroad in the 1970s. Photo: issei kato/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Israeli assassins spent 20 years hunting those linked to the Munich attack. They killed Palestinians in France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Lebanon. They used a remote-controlled bomb hidden inside a phone in France and used guns with silencers to kill targets in the streets of Rome.
Among those to take part in the yearslong effort was Ehud Barak, then a young Israeli commando who went on to become prime minister. In 1973, Barak, dressed as a woman, was part of a team that sneaked into Beirut to kill three Palestinian militants linked to the Munich attack. They killed all three in a matter of minutes.
But Operation Wrath of God also led to one of Israel’s most embarrassing covert failures in 1973, when a team of Israeli operatives killed a Moroccan waiter in Norway who they had mistakenly identified as a Palestinian militant involved in the Munich attack. Six of the 15 Israeli operatives were arrested and five were sentenced to short prison terms for their roles in the killing.