September 27, 2004

Israeli Assassination of Hamas Leader in Syria

The Israeli killing of 'Iz Al-Din Subhi Shaykh Khalil in Damascus is noteworthy and is not getting the attention in the media I would have given it. Israel has in the past only very infrequently conducted anti-Palestinian operations inside Syria's borders.

In October 2003, the Israelis conducted an airstrike against a Palestinian camp northwest of Damascus, called 'Ayn Sahab. When I was stationed at the American embassy in Syria, 'Ayn Sahab was thought to be a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC, led by Ahmad Jibril) facility. We were told to avoid it as they had detained the Defense attache a few years earlier. After about twelve tense hours, the Syrians ordered his release.

The Israelis claimed that the camp was used by the PIJ, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That attack was in response to a female suicide bomber operation at a restaurant in Haifa. Over the years, we have seen aggressive anti-Palestinian operations (assassinations) in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon and even in Jordan, but Syria has generally been off limits. Following the double suicide bombings in Beersheba a few weeks ago claimed by Hamas, the Israelis said they might retaliate against Syria for allowing Hamas to maintain offices in Damascus. This caused many of the Hamas leaders resident in Damascus to take trips to other countries, fearing another airstrike. The Israelis bobby-trapped Khalil's car outside his residence in the Musakin Al-Zahra' section of Damascus. I used to drive through this area all the time - it is on the way to the airport, and immediately adjacent to the sprawling Al-Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp - "camp" is merely a word here - it is really now a built-up city. The ability of the Israelis to mount an operation in this rather up-scale Palestinian leadership enclave is impressive. Not only did they have the intelligence - although Khalil was not exactly hiding where he lived, they were able to either move people in or recruit someone in country to rig the car.

Not bad. That said, what will the Syrians do? Probably nothing - they would like the Palestinian issue to go away. What they really want is the Golan Heights back and the ability to influence events in Lebanon. What will Hamas do? More violence. They have threatened to retaliate against Israeli targets anywhere in the world, but they really have limited capabilities outside the territories and possibly inside Israel.