An Israeli message to Hamas, or Gaza infighting?
Mazen Faqha was a Hamas official responsible for organizing a 2002 suicide bombing attack in Israel.
Found guilty and given a life sentence for the crime that killed nine people and injured scores more, he was among the over 1000 terrorists—many of them also with blood on their hands and serving life sentences—released in 2011 as part of the prisoner exchange to free hostage IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.
Faqha was deported to Gaza.
From there, according to Israeli officials, he became a “key planner” in setting up Hamas terror cells in the West Bank, directing them as they organized and launched deadly terror attacks against Israelis.
On Friday March 24th, 38-year-old Faqha was assassinated by assailants using silencers, The Times of Israel reports:
Faqha was shot dead near his home in Tel el-Hawa, a neighborhood in southwestern Gaza City, by [unknown] assailants using a weapon equipped with a silencer. He was hit by four bullets to the head…Hamas said Israel was to blame and vowed revenge…The identity and motive of the assailants was not immediately clear. There was no official comment from Israel on his killing.”
Below I review the fallout from the killing of Mazen Faqha.
Thousands of militants and civilians in Gaza and the West Bank turned out for his funeral processions, and a swirl of accusations by various Palestinian terror groups, which are blaming Israel for “waging a clandestine war” and are now threatening retribution.
Early Sunday morning (EST), Israeli media reported that the IDF was being put on high alert in expectation of Hamas retaliation.
I begin with Faqha’s victims.
August 2002 Egged Bus Bombing
Born and raised in the West Bank village of Toubas, Mazen Faqha was a senior Hamas commander in the Qassam Brigades (the armed wing of Hamas), which carried out many suicide bombings during the bloody second intifada.
Faqha had a hand in a number of these attacks, but he was sentenced in 2003 for planning a suicide bombing on a civilian passenger bus near Safed in the north of Israel the prior summer.
Nine people were murdered in the attack and 52 were wounded.
Here’s a summary of the terror attack from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with the names and photographs of those killed:
Nine people were killed and some 50 wounded in a suicide bombing of Egged bus No. 361 traveling from Haifa to Safed at the Meron junction in northern Israel shortly before 9:00 Sunday morning.
There were many IDF soldiers on the bus, which exploded as it was traveling near the entrance to the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, frequently visited by Jewish worshippers. The blast blew off the roof of the bus, which then burst into flames, killing or wounding nearly everyone inside, witnesses said. Among those killed were twere three soldiers, four Israeli civilians and two Philippine women.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack. Overnight on Sunday, IDF troops captured Hamas commander Mazan Fukha, responsible for dispatching the suicide bomber, in the West Bank town of Tubas together with two of his deputies.
For his crime, Faqha received nine life sentences—one for each person he killed. But he was jailed for only 8 years, when he was released in 2011 for IDF soldier Shalit, who by then had been held captive for 5 years in Gaza.
Under the conditions of his release, Faqha was supposed to refrain from engagement in terror or incitement to violence. In fact, he returned to terror activities, resuming a leadership position in the Qassam Brigades.
Thousands Attend the Funeral of a Slain Hamas Terrorist
Yesterday, thousands of Hamas supporters called for “revenge” during Faqha’s funeral in Jabalia, northern Gaza.
The top brass of Hamas reportedly delivered fiery eulogies.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, headed the procession from Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, where Faqha’s body was initially taken, to the al-Omari mosque, and from there to Sheikh Radwan cemetery:
Here’s some images from the funeral, where even children were spectators. Many more images can be found on the internet. It’s also important to note that the funeral march included members and leaders from Gaza’s various political factions and armed groups, and not only Hamas supporters:
[Credit: A Jazeera]
[Credit: Al Jazeera]Although more subdued, in the West Bank hundreds of Palestinians reportedly also marched to Faqha’s childhood home in the small village of Toubas. There, they viewed the Gaza funeral on TV:
Did Israel Assassinate Mazen Faqha?
As of this writing, Israeli officials haven’t commented on Faqha’s killing.
In fact, as noted by Avi Issacharoff for The Times of Israel, there’s “no firm evidence” of Israeli involvement.
But multiple terror groups—including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Islamic Jihad—stated that “Zionist fingerprints” were evident in the killing which had “clear marks of Mossad [Israel’s spy agency].”
Khalil al-Haya, Hamas’s deputy chief, stated:
If the enemy thinks that this assassination will change the power balance, then it should know the minds of [Hamas] will be able to retaliate in kind.”
On Friday, Hamas’s interior ministry indicated that it was launching an investigation, but al-Haya also claimed that only Israel would have had something to gain from Faqha’s death.
The Qassam Brigades said in a statement that “it was clear and obvious that this crime was arranged by the Zionist enemy.” It went on to warn that “this enemy will be the ones who suffer the consequences” and that the “occupation” would “regret” the “cowardly attack” on Gaza’s “resistance fighters.”
No one has an interest in assassinating the ex-detainee Mazen Fuqahaa today in Gaza other than the Israeli Occupation.
— Hamas Movement (@HamasInfoEn) March 24, 2017
The official statement released by Hamas reiterates this:
Hamas and its [military wing] hold [Israel] and its collaborators responsible for this despicable crime…[Israel] knows that the blood of fighters is not spilled in vain and Hamas will know how to act.”
Jumping on the bandwagon, the military wing of the PFLP reportedly denounced the assassination stating that it “must be met with a harsh response by all resistance factions.” The Islamic Jihad movement stated that Faqha’s killing marked the “start of a new offensive” by Israel and that “the resistance has the right to respond and defend themselves.”
On Saturday, the Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah also got into the act. It condemned the assassination, accusing Israel for masterminding it.
Sources close to Hamas’s military wing reportedly believe that the circumstances surrounding Faqha’s killing are similar to what happened this past December to Hamas’s chief drone expert, who was killed in Tunisia after being shot at close range with six bullets—three to his head.
As we noted in our post covering that killing, some thought it was a dispute gone bad, but then too Hamas pointed the finger at Israel.
Sending a Message and Following a Precedent
It’s certainly conceivable that Israel ordered the hit on Faqha.
Israel might have wanted to “send a message” to Hamas—especially now that Sinwar, considered a dangerous and unpredictable extremist even by Hamas standards, has been elevated to a leadership role.
According to Israeli intelligence, Faqha wasn’t a two-bit player. His “fingerprints” were on many of the recent attempted and successful terror attacks on Israeli civilians that originated from the West Bank in recent years.
Also, Israel’s counterterror strategy has long included the targeted assassination of high-ranking Hamas operatives in Gaza.
Back in 1996, for example, Yahya Ayyash, Hamas’s chief engineer and bomb-maker at the time, died instantly when an explosive planted in his cellphone detonated as he answered a call. The hit was ordered by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the architect of Israel’s Oslo “peace” Accords. Peres and national security agencies knew they had to nab Ayyash before he could orchestrate any more mass-casualty attacks. But the late PLO leader Yassir Arafat insisted that Ayyash wasn’t in the Strip.
Then too Hamas vowed revenge when throngs turned out for Ayyash’s funeral. A wave of suicide bombings, which Hamas claimed were payback for the assassination, soon followed.But not everyone is buying that Faqha’s death is down to Israel.
Faqha Had Lots of Enemies, So Someone Else May Have Killed Him
According to an article for The International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC), a major pro-Palestinian journalist clearinghouse, the “list of possible subjects could be longer.”
A deal gone wrong can’t be ruled out because of Faqha’s believed involvement in the Qassam Brigades’ black market economy.
A hit may have been called by some other organization.
Because of competition with other armed Palestinian factions in Gaza (Hamas has recently carried out a wave of arrests among small Salafi jihadist groups), and ongoing internal rivalries within Hamas itself, this is plausible.
The IMEMC article also notes that Israel isn’t the only state with an interest in seeing Faqha liquidated: Egypt has an interest in restraining the Qassam Brigades’ black market and tunnel activities as well as curbing Hamas cooperation with ISIS in the Sinai.
So Faqha’s death could be the outcome of a internecine feud or a killing orchestrated by another country.
— Joe (@Jtruzmah) March 25, 2017
Still, if Faqha’s father is to be believed, Israeli intelligence officers reportedly came to his house on three occasions delivering messages that his son would be killed if he continued with his actions in the West Bank:
They said Mazen was carrying out attacks against Israel, and Israel’s arm is long.”
And then there’s this: March 21st—just a few days before Faqha was shot to death—marked the 13th anniversary of Israel’s targeted assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks and deaths of innocents.
— Shlomi Ben Meir (@shlomikliab) March 22, 2017
If Israel doesn’t confirm its role in the killing, we may never know who is responsible for Mazen Faqha’s death.
That could be a positive.
As Issacharoff notes, as long as Israel’s involvement remains undetermined, Hamas may be satisfied with the kind of blustery rhetoric witnessed this weekend.
That is, it won’t perceive the need to respond with any dramatic retaliatory operation that could lead to a full-fledged war—something that Hamas doesn’t want at the moment (note that Hamas’s unilateral decision to indefinitely close all Gaza crossings into Israel while it conducts an investigation into Faqha’s death may also be a face-saving measure rather than an escalatory move).
But here are two things we already know for certain:
- First, Faqha failed to adhere to the terms of his 2011 prison release, returning to manage terror activities in the West Bank and becoming once again a senior member of Hamas’s Qassam Brigades.
As we noted in a recent post, a great many of the Palestinian mass-murderers incarcerated in Israeli jails who have been released in various lopsided exchanges over the years (i.e., typically hundreds of terrorists in return for a couple of IDF or civilian hostages—or even just their remains) end up going right back into the terror business.
- Second, the Palestinian public holds great affinity for Hamas terrorists, as shown by the huge numbers who honored Faqha with their presence at his Gaza and West Bank funeral processions.
Polls in recent years shows that a large percentage of the Palestinian public (over 60% according to a one conducted in early 2016) approve of “armed attacks against Israeli civilians” and believe that these attacks will have a better chance than negotiations of realizing Palestinian goals.
Bottom line: for those who desperately want to end the “occupation”, the case of Mazen Faqha should serve as a wakeup call. To insist on Israel’s immediate departure from the West Bank without explaining how men like Faqha can be prevented from taking over the place—as happened in Gaza—is to put Israelis and the Jewish state itself at risk.
It’s unbelievably foolish and morally wrong.
Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman