Israel’s intelligence services are preparing to kill Hamas leaders around the world when the war in the Gaza Strip winds down, setting the stage for a yearslong campaign to hunt down thousands of fighters in the Strip, Israeli officials told The Wall Street Journal.
With orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s top spy agencies are working on plans to hunt down Hamas leaders living in Lebanon, Türkiye and Qatar, the officials said.
The assassination campaign would be an extension of Israel’s decadeslong clandestine operations, the WSJ wrote.
It said Israeli assassins have hunted Palestinian militants in Beirut while dressed as women, and killed a Hamas leader in Dubai while disguised as tourists. Israel has used a car bomb to assassinate a Hezbollah leader in Syria and a remote-controlled rifle to kill a nuclear scientist in Iran, according to former Israeli officials.
The new plans would mark a second chance for Netanyahu, who ordered a botched 1997 attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan, according to WSJ.
The well-documented attempt instead led to the release of Hamas’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
To the consternation of some Israeli officials who want the latest plans to remain a mystery, Netanyahu telegraphed his intentions in a nationwide address on Nov. 22.
“I have instructed the Mossad to act against the heads of Hamas wherever they are,” he said, referring to Israel’s foreign-intelligence service.
In the same address, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Hamas leaders are living on “borrowed time.”
“They are marked for death,” he said. “The struggle is worldwide, both the terrorists in Gaza and those who fly in expensive planes.”
While Israel typically tries to keep such efforts secret, the nation’s leaders have shown few reservations about revealing their intentions to hunt down everyone responsible for the Oct. 7 attack, just like they did to those responsible for the Palestinian attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
WSJ said the evolving plans are an extension of Israel’s war in Gaza and a reflection of its intentions to ensure that Hamas can never again pose a serious threat to Israel—just as the US led a global coalition against ISIS militants who set up a self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
As part of the effort, Israel is also looking at whether it could forcibly expel thousands of low-level Hamas fighters from Gaza as a way to shorten the war.
“Targeted killings abroad can violate international law and run the risk of blowback from nations in which assassins operate without their permission,” WSJ wrote, adding that in practice, however, Israel and others have pursued targeted killings and weathered the repercussions.
Citing the officials, the newspaper said that some Israeli officials wanted to launch an immediate campaign to kill Meshaal and other Hamas leaders living abroad.
It said Israel isn’t known to have carried out any targeted-killing operations in Qatar, and doing so after Oct. 7 could have torpedoed continuing efforts to negotiate the release of those held hostage, the officials said.
Those concerns helped temper efforts to immediately embark on the assassination campaign, but the planning continues, the sources said.
Also, the newspaper said that Qatar has become the central hub for the hostage talks, with the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, meeting CIA chief William Burns in Doha earlier this week for more discussions.
Doha has helped to secure the release of dozens of Israeli hostages held by Gaza militants in return for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
Efraim Halevy, a former Mossad director, called the plan to kill Hamas leaders abroad “ill-advised.”
“Killing Hamas leaders won’t eliminate the threat. It has the potential to instead inflame the group’s followers and accelerate creation of even worse threats,” he said.
“Pursuing Hamas on a worldwide scale and trying to systematically remove all its leaders from this world is a desire to exact revenge, not a desire to achieve a strategic aim,” said Halevy, who called the plan “far-fetched.”
However, Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli general who once led the military’s intelligence agency, said the campaign “is what justice demands.”
“All the Hamas leaders, all those who participated in the attack, who planned the attack, who ordered the attack, should be brought to justice or eliminated,” Yadlin said. “It’s the right policy.”
The newspaper said that the campaigns to assassinate Hamas leaders have sometimes backfired.
In 1997, Netanyahu, then serving his first term as prime minister, ordered Israeli spies to kill Meshaal, a Hamas founder who was then living in Jordan. One Israeli assassin sprayed a toxin into Meshaal’s ear but he was captured along with another member of the team before they could escape.
Meshaal fell into a coma, and Jordan threatened to terminate its peace treaty with Israel. Then-President Bill Clinton pressed Netanyahu to end the crisis by sending his Mossad chief to Amman with the antidote that saved Meshaal’s life.
Israel then secured the freedom of its operatives in Jordan by agreeing to release Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, and 70 other Palestinian prisoners.
In 2010, a team of Israeli operatives using forged European passports flew to Dubai, where they masqueraded as tourists while awaiting the arrival of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a founder of the Hamas military wing. Surveillance video later captured members of the team, dressed as tennis players, following Mabhouh to his room, where the Israelis paralyzed and then suffocated the Hamas leader.
While it initially appeared that Mabhouh had died of natural causes, Dubai officials eventually identified the hit team and accused Israel of the assassination.
It took years to repair the damage to Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates.