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Targeting political operatives, Israel moves into new phase of fighting Hamas

August 21, 2014 at 6:43 PM EST
Following this week’s cease-fire collapse, Israeli airstrikes killed multiple Hamas leaders in Gaza. The Associated Press’s Josef Federman, reporting from Jerusalem, talks to Hari Sreenivasan about news that a member of Hamas has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens, plus the prospects of either side returning to the negotiating table.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: For more on the fighting between Israel and Hamas, I spoke with Josef Federman of the Associated Press a short time ago.

So, Josef, how significant of a blow to Hamas was the killing of these three leaders?

JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press: Well, we can tell that they’re definitely high-quality targets.

We could tell by the reaction that we saw in the streets of Gaza today. Thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people, were out at the funeral today. Clearly, they are valuable people. It’s clearly a demoralizing blow to Hamas and a big moral victory, I think, to Israel.

The question is what effect it has on the battlefield. And what we have seen in the past is, every time Israel kills a senior target, another one seems to sprout up and take their place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what do we know about Israel’s ability to track and target these three individuals?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Yes, it seems to be quite a sophisticated intelligence operation.

You heard the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, praising his intelligence services. I think what made this so interesting is that these three men were underground. They have been in hiding for the duration of this war over the past month or so. And from what we understand, they literally — they came out of a tunnel. They had been in hiding.

And in a matter of minutes, Israel tracked them down and killed them. So that tells you something about Israel’s tracking abilities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There seems to be something different about this round of fighting than in the past few weeks before the cease-fire. What is it?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Well, I think you see by this killing today, Israel seems to be moving into a new phase.

In the past, there have been lots of casualties. Over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed. But these casualties for the most part have been in the heat of battle, ground-level soldiers. Now Israel seems to be going after the higher level, after political operatives.

In addition to these three, Israel yesterday went after Mohammed Deif, the chief of Hamas’ entire military wing. That is the highest-quality target they could get. It’s still unclear. Hamas says he survived. They haven’t provided any evidence. Israel’s remaining quiet about that, so it’s not quite clear what happened to him.

But we do feel like we’re in a new type of phase, when Israel is going after political-type targets.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We reported today that a member of Hamas took responsibility for the kidnapping and killing of those three teenagers that really started this newest round of conflicts. Was that a surprise in the region?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: It was a big surprise, because Hamas has been keeping quiet about this.

They have — actually, they have been very proud — or they have praised the kidnapping repeatedly, but they have always been careful to say that they didn’t do it or they didn’t know who did it. Suddenly, one of Hamas’ top people, an exiled leader who lives in Turkey, is claiming responsibility.

That seems to change the equation in many ways, because now Hamas is essentially admitting that they are — they played a role in setting off this whole chain of events that led to this war.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about what’s happening on the diplomatic front. What happened in those talks in Cairo?  Why did they end?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Well, we’re never going to know exactly what happened in these talks.

It was in — behind closed doors, obviously. Egyptian intelligence were hosting things. But what we do understand is, you know, two sides were taking maximalist positions. Israel wants Hamas to give up all of its weapons. Hamas wants a complete end to the Gaza blockade.

That’s not going to happen. So they’re wrangling, I think, over how to find a compromise. And Israel — neither side, really, was willing to give enough to reach something in the middle. Now that the diplomacy appears to have failed, now that we have been involved in a war for the past month, where Israel even went in with ground troops, with heavy force, neither one of those scenarios seemed to bring an end to this. And it makes you wonder how long this latest phase is now going to go on.

It seems like it could drag on for a while.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are there any plans by either side to try to return to a negotiating table of any sort, possibly in Cairo, possibly elsewhere?

JOSEF FEDERMAN: You don’t hear it directly from the sides, but you do hear Egypt saying that it’s involved behind the scenes. It’s calling for a cease-fire. It’s encouraging everybody to return to the negotiating table.

We also see some developments elsewhere in the region. Qatar, a — the Gulf country, a close ally of Hamas, is hosting the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas’ leader, Khaled Meshaal, this evening. So there is some hope on that end.

We also see some movement in the U.N. Security Council. Some European countries are now trying to put together a resolution with international support calling for an international cease-fire, with the possibility even of an international presence to help enforce it.

So there is some movement, but it doesn’t seem like anything is going to happen in the next 24 hours.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Josef Federman of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

JOSEF FEDERMAN: Thank you.