Swords of Iron

Even After the War in Gaza, Israel Will Have to Hunt Down Hamas’ Leaders

In mid-September 1972, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir convened a secret meeting of cabinet ministers and security officials. Days earlier, 11 Israeli athletes had been murdered on the sidelines of the Olympic games in Munich by Black September, a notorious Palestinian terrorist group.

At the meeting, Meir approved what became known as “Operation Wrath of God,” a targeted assassination campaign that sent the Mossad’s top unit “Kidon”—Hebrew for bayonet—to hunt down every terrorist involved in the attack and its planning.

Kidon is an elite group of expert assassins who operate under the Caesarea Branch of the Mossad. Not much is known about this group of men and women who are trained to operate in the shadows, and details of their operations are some of the most closely guarded secrets within the Israeli intelligence community.

The approval at the time was for the Mossad to operate not only in enemy countries like Lebanon or Syria, but also in Europe where Black September members were located. Assassinations attributed to the Mossad took place in the years to follow in Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and France.

“At any place where a plot is being laid, where they are preparing people to murder Jews, Israelis—Jews anywhere—it is there we are committed to striking them,” Meir said a few days later in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Wrath of God was an extensive campaign that reportedly continued for more than a decade and illustrated an important ethos at the time in Israel—no matter how much time it took and how far away the Mossad needed to travel, Israel would not let the murderers of Jews off the hook.

This is important to keep in mind since Wrath of God is coming up again in conversations with some of Israel’s defense and political officials. It is being looked at as a potential model for the type of campaign that the country will need to launch against Hamas terrorist leaders even after the ongoing war, started by the Hamas invasion and massacre on Oct. 7, ends in a few months.

Its activation would be a change in policy as well. Since the end of Wrath of God about 40 years ago, Israel changed its policy and started to only target people for what they were planning to do in the future, not for what they did in the past. The events in early October were so brutal, officials privately explain, that the people who carried them out need to be punished, no matter how long it takes and what they plan to do going forward.

The reason is due to an understanding that the elimination of the leadership might need to carry on longer than the actual ground offensive. While Israel has had some success in eliminating mid-level Hamas commanders—the head of Hamas’s aerial forces and the head of its naval forces were killed a few days ago—a significant number of Hamas commanders are likely to still be alive when this war is officially over, either in Gaza or in other places throughout the world.

Already now, some Hamas leaders reside in Qatar, including Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s political leader as well as Khaled Mashal, Haniyeh’s predecessor and the current head of the group’s foreign affairs department. Also in Doha are Haniyeh’s two deputies – Mousa Abu Marzook and Khalil al Haya while Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’s top commander in the West Bank, is based in Lebanon.

Many of these men were targets of Israeli assassination attempts in the past. In 2003, for example, Hanieyh was part of a group of Hamas leaders meeting in a home in Gaza City. Israel knew of the meeting but fired a missile at the wrong floor, missing the participants. Mashal was the target of a Mossad assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997. Two agents approached the Hamas leader on a street in Amman and sprayed a fast-acting poison into his ear. Mashal fell into a coma, but the two agents were captured, and Israel had to transfer the antidote and release Hamas’s top spiritual leader from prison to secure their release.

While an operation in Doha to eliminate Mashal or Haniyeh is unlikely right now due to the role Qatar is playing to release Israeli hostages held by Hamas, what happens after the war is another matter. It is important to note that Israel has operated in Gulf states in the past. In 2010, for example, Mossad agents killed Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, head of weapons procurement for Hamas, in the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai.

Operating overseas is always going to be more complicated especially in places with which Israel has formal diplomatic ties like the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia with which Israel is working on normalizing relations. Killing Hamas members in those countries is unlikely.

Gaza and Lebanon, though, are different, and it is in those places that Israel will need to continue to operate even once the war is officially over.

Letting Hamas members know now that they will remain targets after the war, might not deter them today—the idea of deterring Hamas is no longer considered viable after Oct. 7—but it does send an important message that Jerusalem is no longer containing its enemies.

Israel is on the offensive and as Golda Meir said in 1972, anyone who attacks Jews will pay a price no matter how long it takes.

Yaakov Katz is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a former editor of the Jerusalem Post and the author of three books on Israeli military affairs, most recently Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power.

Published by the NEWSWEEK