The Israel Defense Forces didn’t just kill Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari on Wednesday as he was driving his car down the street in Gaza. They killed him and then instantly posted the strike to YouTube. Then they tweeted a warning to all of Jabari’s comrades: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
The Jabari hit is part of the biggest assault the IDF has launched in more than three years on Gaza, with more than 20 targets hit. And it’s being accompanied by one of the most aggressive social media offensives ever launched by any military. Several days before Jabari’s elimination, the IDF began liveblogging the rocket attacks on southern Israel coming from Gaza. Once “Operation Pillar of Defense” began, the IDF put up a Facebook page, a Flickr feed, and, of course, a stream of Twitter taunts — all relying on the same white-on-red English-language graphics. “Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated,” reads a tweet from 2:21 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.
This is a very different way of waging the war of opinion online. When an American drone strikes a suspected militant in Afghanistan, that footage is rarely made public — and, if so, only months after the fact. After the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, White House and Pentagon aides did start leaking details like mad. But the only live tweets from the operation were from a bystander in Abbottabad who heard the helicopters landing. And the pictures of bin Laden’s corpse were purposely kept from the public.
But Israel also finds itself in a singular position, geopolitically. Its most consistent ally in the region, the Mubarak regime in Cairo, was overthrown last year and replaced by an Islamist government. Relations with Jerusalem’s most important partner, the United States, were tested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-but-open support of Barack Obama’s rival Mitt Romney in the recent American presidential elections. The need to shape international opinion and rally supporters internationally is acute.
After spotting a long-range Fajr-5 rocket in an underground launch site, the IDF quickly uploaded the surveillance footage to YouTube (see above), and tweeted a Google Maps-style picture of the launcher’s location in the town of Zeitoun. After killing Jabari, the IDF posted to its blog something of a rap sheet on the longtime leader of Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, including his alleged role in the kidnapping of young soldier Gilad Shalit.
Of course, the official Israeli obituary of Jabari leaves out a few rather meaningful items, like the fact that he was Israeli’s de facto partner and ally over the last several years. After Cast Lead, Israel and Hamas made a deal: the Islamic group would keep Gaza’s array of militant movements in check, and Israel would keep the aid trucks and the cash flowing. The man responsible for keeping the peace: Ahmed al-Jabari.
It worked for a while. But in recent weeks, the rockets began flying again, and Jerusalem became displeased with its “subcontractor,” as the ace Israel military observer Aluf Benn puts it. Jabari was openly warned to step it up, and then executed when he did not.
The political outcome of the operation will become clear on January 22, but the strategic ramifications are more complex: Israel will have to find a new subcontractor to replace Ahmed Jabari as its border guard in the south.
Ahmed Jabari was a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza. This title will no doubt sound absurd to anyone who in the past several hours has heard Jabari described as "an arch-terrorist," "the terror chief of staff" or "our Bin Laden."
Jabari was in charge of maintaining Gaza security. Israel relied on him to maintain order. At the same time, he was called “an arch-terrorist,” “the terror chief in charge,” and “our bin Laden.”
Israel pulls the same stunts as Washington. Enemies are invented to stoke fear.
Benn said in return for maintaining order, Israel funded Hamas “through the flow of shekels in armored trucks to banks in Gaza, and continued to supply infrastructure and medical services to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.”
Amounts given were woefully inadequate. It’s surprising anything was provided under conditions of siege. Jabari was also key in securing Shalit’s release. In captivity, he ensured his welfare and safety.
Perhaps his subcontractor services weren’t good enough. He could control Hamas but not other resistance groups. He was warned to restrain them. Israel’s message was clear. “You failed, you’re dead.”
According to Barak, “In the Middle East, there is no second chance for the weak.” Killing Jabari will be remembered as another pre-election gambit to win votes.
Professor Yagil Levy calls it “fanning the conflict as an intra-state control strategy.” External conflict enlists domestic support for greater safety and security. Israel chose this route many times before. Cast Lead was most recent on the eve of 2009 elections.
It helped elect Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu hopes he’ll be advantaged the same way. On January 22 he’ll know. At the same time, Israel needs a new Gaza subcontractor.
It also has other regional challenges. Post-election, it remains to be seen if Israel loses more than it gains by killing Jabari. Palestinians and supporters intend to see things turn out that way.
Gershon Baskin’s efforts as a negotiator led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas in Gaza from 2006 to 2011. Through this work, Baskin came into mediated contact with Ahmed Jabari, commander of Hamas’s military wing. According to Baskin, Jabari had just been presented with the draft of a long-term cease-fire proposal, another effort of Baskin’s, when Israel assassinated Jabari on Nov. 14. The Israeli government was aware of Baskin’s attempts, he says, but "decided not to take that path."
The targeted killing and accompanying bombings broke off an informal truce, mediated by Egypt, that had seemed to signal an end to escalation. Baskin wrote in The Daily Beast: “Jaabari is dead, and so is the chance for a mutually beneficial long term cease-fire understanding.”
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