Comment: Did Israel assassinate senior Hamas official in Syria?

The leadership of Hamas has accused Israel of assassinating one of its senior officials in Syria last Wednesday. The Palestinian militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, announced late last week that the charred body of Kamel Ranaja had been found in his half-burned apartment in Syrian capital Damascus. Ranaja, known informally as Nizar Abu Mujhad, was said to have replaced the post of the late Hamas weapons procurer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. Al-Mabhouh was killed in 2010 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, most likely by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Citing French news agency Agence France Presse, Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that “a group of people entered [Ranaja’s] home […] and killed him”, adding that “according to the information that we have gathered, the Mossad is behind the attack”. Reports from Reuters published in the British press suggest that Ranaja’s charred body “bore signs of torture” and that it had been dismembered. There are also suggestions that the group that attacked the Hamas official’s apartment took with them an unspecified volume of documents and computer files before setting the place on fire.

As can be expected at this point, there has been no official reaction to Ranaja’s killing from Damascus or Tel Aviv. When asked about the incident on Israel Army Radio, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused to confirm or deny Israeli involvement, saying simply that, based on his information, Ranaja “was not exactly one of the most righteous of his generation”. Still, Israel has a clear interest in weakening the Palestinian militant group, which it considers a major threat to its national security. Observers can point to ample historical precedent showing that the Israeli intelligence services are anything but strangers to extrajudicial killings. Historical case studies include —but are not limited to— Operation DAMOCLES, Operation BAYONET, the aforementioned assassination of al-Mabhouh, and the aborted attempt on the life of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan, with a nerve toxin.

On the other hand, there is no escaping the fact that the method used to assassinate Ranaja is not reminiscent of the Mossad. The Israeli intelligence agency is known for quick, silent, and ‘clean’ assassination or abduction operations, which do not involve the use of torture as a standard operating procedure. There is no precedent of Israeli intelligence agents beheading their targets, as was reportedly the case with Ranaja. It can be argued that operatives of Mossad, or Shin Bet, Israel’s military intelligence agency, acted under instructions to make the killing of Ranaja appear connected to the internal power struggle currently taking place in Syria. But, as former Mossad operative Rami Igra noted over the weekend, Ranaja’s role inside Hamas was not important enough to justify Israel risking the safety of a team of experienced assassins to kill him in the heart of Damascus. This view is particularly pertinent to the current unstable political climate in Syria, which has resulted in extremely heavy security precautions in Damascus.

Additionally, it should be noted that a war has been taking place between Hamas and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ever since February, when the Palestinian group came out in favor of the ongoing Syrian uprising. Observers of Middle Eastern politics will know that the political leadership of Hamas had been based in Damascus for many decades prior to this year, when the Syrian regime withdrew its support for the group after it sided with the anti-government rebel forces. In the past few months, an unprecedented exodus of senior Hamas officials has been taking place; the latter, including the group’s leader, Khaled Mashal, are leaving the Syrian capital for Gaza, Cairo, or the provinces of Qatar. Ranaja was one of just a handful of senior Hamas members left in Damascus, and it could be that he was killed by al-Assad’s paramilitaries before having a chance to leave town.

What is certain at this point is that Ranaja’s brutal killing will become yet another element in the increasingly convoluted security situation in Syria, where the demarcating lines between social activism, political dissent, and total war, are progressively blurring.

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