Last Friday night, four assassins lay in wait for Hamas military leader Mazen Faqha outside his beach-side home in Tel el-Hawa, a neighborhood in south-western Gaza City. The assassins had broken in to Faqha’s garage a few hours earlier, after Faqha had left his house with his wife and daughter. Now, they waited quietly for his return.
At around 6pm, Faqha arrived, dropping off his wife and daughter at the front door. As Faqha drove into the garage to park his car, the electric door closed behind him and four bullets entered his body. Faqha was killed almost immediately.
The gunmen used weapons equipped with silencers, and “an hour and a half passed before Faqha’s corpse was found by one of the residents of his apartment tower.” “It all happened quietly,” Faqah’s wife told the Turkish Anadolu agency on Sunday. “When he tarried [after leaving to park the car], I didn’t worry. I thought he was talking to the neighbours. The news of his death came as a surprise.”
Faqha’s wife was not the only one who was surprised. According to Yoav Limor, “It is safe to say Hamas is shocked, perhaps too shocked to think clearly. Faqha’s assassination came out of the blue, seemingly detached from the usual border-adjacent and tunnel-oriented battleground.” Aside from Israel, four possible suspects exist.
First, it is possible that the assassins were members of radical Salafist groups in Gaza that oppose Hamas. In recent months, Hamas has arrested hundreds of Salafists affiliated with ISIS, as “part of the warming of ties between Gaza and Cairo and Hamas’s desire to gain favor with Egypt”. Additionally, these groups have launched rockets against Israel, at the cost of retaliatory strikes against Hamas from Israel. Aside from his seniority, Faqha may have been an easy target because he lived and travelled without bodyguards or other protection, unlike other senior Hamas officials. As such, Salafist forces may have used Faqha to take their revenge. However, Palestinian sources “estimate this probability as very low.”
A second possibility is that the killing was an “inside job” – that someone inside Hamas decided, for whatever reason, to get rid of Faqha. This would not be the first time that senior Hamas officials and commanders were murdered by their peers because of an internal power struggle or a personal disagreement. Moreover, these tactics would not be new for Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ new leader in Gaza. In February 2016, a year prior to his election as Hamas’ Gaza head, Sinwar had ordered the liquidation of Mahmoud Eshtewi, a senior commander in Hamas’ military branch.
Whilst some speculate that Sinwar’s last known kill, Eshtewi, was assassinated for collaborating with Israel, others suggest that it was because of his harsh criticism of Sinwar. Similarly, it is possible that Faqha was suspected of being a double agent for Israel, but it is also possible that Sinwar ordered the murder for other reasons, while making sure that the killing appeared as if it was carried out by Israel. As Elior Levy argues, Sinwar has “no qualms about killing collaborators and has murdered more than ten of them himself.”
Thirdly, it is possible that the Palestinian Authority (‘PA’) ordered Faqha’s murder. Although the PA has no official presence in Gaza, “their security services have agents in the strip who were possibly the ones leading the cell that assassinated Faqha”. Moreover, Faqha was a senior operative in the ‘West Bank command’ of Hamas, which “gives orders and funds to West Bank cells” where the Palestinian Authority has control. The ‘West Bank command’ is subject to Hamas’ military headquarters based in Turkey, and is “in charge of planning and executing terrorist operations against Israelis and the PA in the West Bank and Israel”. However, “the chances of that option are rather low compared to other options.”
Finally, it is possible that Faqha was murdered due to a personal feud that “had nothing to do with his military activity”. However, this seems very unlikely given the professional nature of the assassination.
Of course, the prime suspect for carrying out the assassination is Israel. In 2003, Faqha was sentenced to nine life terms in Israeli prison for organising a suicide bombing that killed nine Israelis on a bus in northern Israel. But, in 2011, Faqha was released along with more than 1,000 other convicted Palestinians, in exchange for the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Under the terms of the deal, Israel’s intelligence service insisted that Faqha be prohibited from returning to his home town in the West Bank, and he was deported to Gaza instead. But once there, Faqha violated “his release commitment not to be involved in terrorism”, and co-founded the West Bank command.
According to the Times of Israel, “Faqha’s father, who lives in the West Bank, told a Hamas TV station that Israeli intelligence officers had warned the family three times that his son’s terrorist activity was going to get him killed. ‘They said Mazen was carrying out attacks against Israel, and that Israel’s arm is long,’ he said.” According to Faqha’s family, Israeli intelligence officers had asked them to deliver warnings to him to stop his activities.” On the other side of the equation, “the Shin Bet chief told the Knesset last week that Hamas has increased its efforts to execute terrorist acts in the West Bank and Israel, especially before Passover [mid-April]. “
Hamas leaders have accused Israel of being responsible for the assassination. According to Levy, “the general belief in the Gaza Strip is that Israel used this assassination to send a message to two groups. The first, other released prisoners expelled to Gaza who have returned to terror activity. The second, Hamas’s new leadership, particularly new leader Yahiya Sinwar. The message being that no one in Gaza is safe from the long arm of Israel.”
It is also noteworthy that the “new head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, has spent all his professional life in the special operations wing of his organization. And the new Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, aspires to make his agency more ‘operational'”. Additionally, according to the London-based pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, “there were assessments that the gunmen had both arrived to and fled from the Strip by sea”, and Hamas has pointed to “the professionalism of the killing as proof of Israel’s involvement.”
Since the assassination, Israel has placed its military forces near the Gaza Strip on high alert, in fear of retaliation from Hamas. Israel has also instructed farmers on the border not to approach the security fence.
However, nobody has formally claimed responsibility for the assassination so far. If Faqha was killed by Israel, then this is a marked departure from past assassinations, such as that of senior Hamas figures Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Yahya Ayyash and Ahmed Jabari, where Israel was quick to claim responsibility. As Jack Khoury argues, this gives Hamas “some room for restraint” and “the fact that Hamas did not respond with rocket fire at Israel also clearly shows it does not intend to cross red lines and trigger a direct clash.
Although Hamas has significantly rearmed since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, this has been slower than expected because “smuggling weapons and other components from Egypt has become exceedingly harder” and as Gaza faces serious domestic economic challenges. Whilst a clash with Israel could provide Gaza’s population with a distraction from Hamas’ failures, it may also “cause Hamas to lose control of the Strip, especially given Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s statements that a future Gaza campaign would see Israel strive to topple Hamas rule.”
Even if this does not happen, there would likely be a political cost, as Hamas is currently in the midst of reorganizing its control system and hosting internal elections. Additionally, Hamas is “in the midst of talks with Egypt and preparing the political platform that it intends to present in the coming weeks.”
For now, Hamas has closed the Erez crossing – the only pedestrian crossing between Israel and Gaza – until further notice. This is the first time that Hamas has closed the crossing, and according to World Health Organisation staff, 138 Gazans, “including patients seeking medical treatment and their companions, were denied entry to Israel” as a result. The crossing contains three checkpoints, with one run by Hamas, one by the Palestinian Authority, and one by Israel. For the crossing to be operational, all three must be working. However, Hamas is reportedly allowing “humanitarian cases” to return to the strip, if not to leave. Hamas has also prevented Gazan fisherman from going out to sea.
But, despite the lack of any immediate violent reaction from Hamas, it has pledged to respond to the attacks. As Khoury argues, Hamas has ” adopted Hezbollah’s strategy, whereby the Lebanese group responds in a time and place that it considers proper, without haste.” As Avi Issacharoff argues, Hamas’ new leader, Yahya Sinwar “is known as a dangerous, unpredictable and uninhibited commander. He may prefer to wait for a moment when Israel will be caught by surprise, and to launch the sorts of operations seen in the past, such as kidnappings or, in a throwback to the previous decade, suicide bombings.”
It has been argued that the assassination may form part of a new strategy on Israel’s part, as an alternative to the forms of open war that Israel has used in the past. If this is the case, then this may be the beginning of a new form of conflict, with each side biding its time to covertly strike against the other.
Image source: Reuters / Mohammed Salem