Israel's history of assassinating Hamas leaders

Israel's history of assassinating Hamas leaders
Israel had a long history of targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders before it killed Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut on January 2 2024.
5 min read
03 January, 2024
Hamas leaders Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi [L] and Sheikh Ahmad Yasin [R] were assassinated by Israel in 2004 [Getty]

On Tuesday Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau and a founding member of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, was assassinated in a drone strike in a suburb in Beirut.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the strike, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to assassinate Hamas leaders across the world following the surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.

But Israel also has a long history of targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders.

Here The New Arab looks into the victims and circumstances of Israel’s campaign of assassination and attempted assassination of the leaders of Hamas.

Emad Akel

Born in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, after witnessing the arrest and even killing of his relatives by Israel, Akel joined Hamas in his teens and gained the nickname “The Ghost” due to his ability to use disguises to launch ambushes on Israeli forces.

The young militant was made the commander of the Qassam Brigades, where he served as a mentor to the current commander Mohamed Deif. He was also placed at the top of Israel’s Most Wanted List.

Aged just 22, he was located by Israeli intelligence through informants and shot dead by Israeli special forces outside his house in Shuja'iyya in 1993.

Yahya Ayyash

Nicknamed “The Engineer”, Ayyash was the chief bombmaker and commander of the West Bank battalion of the Al-Qassam Brigades. A graduate in electrical engineering from Birzeit University, Ayyash was responsible for pioneering explosives used in suicide bombings against Israeli forces.

He was assassinated aged 29 in an elaborate plot by Shin Bet, where they placed an explosive device in his phone and detonated it remotely after he received a call from his father.

Khaled Meshaal

Meshaal, a former physics teacher, is a founding member of the Politburo of Hamas and became its second ever Chairman in 1996. In 1997, on the orders of then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Mossad was tasked with assassinating Meshaal.

As he went into his office one day, he was approached by a Mossad agent from behind. The agent placed an unknown device up to his left ear that transmitted a fast-acting toxin.

The agents were apprehended by Meshaal’s security and he believed he had survived an attempted assassination. He described the experience as a loud bang in his left ear followed by an electric shock-type sensation. However, a few hours later, the Hamas leader was on life support in a coma.

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King Hussein of Jordan threatened to rescind Jordan and Israel’s peace treaty if Netanyahu did not provide an antidote for the poison that was killing Meshaal.

Netanyahu refused and only relented when then US President Bill Clinton personally appealed to the Israeli PM to give up the antidote, as well as guaranteeing the release of the captured Mossad agents.

Netanyahu finally relented and a Mossad agent delivered the antidote to the hospital in Jordan where Meshaal lay dying.

He was saved and continues to live a healthy life in Doha.

Salah Shehadeh

Born in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza in 1953, Shehadeh was the leader of the Qassam Brigades during the Second Intifada. As well masterminding attacks on Israeli forces, Shehadeh was responsible for overseeing the building of Qassam rockets and smuggling in Hamas’s large arsenal of weapons.

After using intelligence to locate him, the Israeli Air Force dropped a one tonne bomb on his house in the al-Daraj neighbourhood of Gaza City. Shehadeh, aged 49, was killed along with his entire family, while 7 of his neighbours' children were also killed in the attack.

Ahmed Yassin

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was the founder of the Hamas movement and arguably the most influential figure in its history. Yassin was born in 1936 and, aged 10, his entire village just outside of Ashkelon was ethnically cleansed by the Israeli army during the Nakba.

His family fled to Gaza as refugees.

A quadriplegic, Yassin was assassinated by Hellfire missiles fired by an Israeli Apache Helicopter as he was being wheeled out of morning prayers in Gaza City in 2004, aged 67.

Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi

Rantisi was aged only one when his family were forced out of their home in the ethnically cleansed Palestinian town of Yibna in 1948. After fleeing to Gaza, he was aged 9 when his uncle was killed right before his eyes as Israeli forces murdered hundreds of Palestinians in the Khan Younis massacre of 1956. 

After becoming a medical doctor at Alexandria University, Rantisi returned to his homeland to resist Israel's occupation and eventually became instrumental, along with Sheikh Yassin, in the creation of the Hamas movement.

After multiple arrests, assassination attempts and deportation to Lebanon, Al-Rantisi was named as the new leader of Hamas after the killing of Yassin on March 22, 2004.

Less than one month later, on April 17, 2004, Rantisi was tracked for weeks by Israeli Air Force intelligence and then assassinated by Hellfire missiles fired into his car by an Israeli Apache helicopter in Gaza City, aged 56.

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Adnan Al-Ghoul

Known as the “Father of the Qassam” for his work in building Hamas’ extensive rocket delivery system, working as an assistant to Yahya Ayyash. Al-Ghoul was also a pioneer of using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Israeli forces in Gaza.

He was assassinated in 2004, aged 41-42, when an Israeli plane tracked him and then targeted his car with two missiles.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

Mabhouh was the Chief Logistics Officer for Hamas and was widely seen as the man responsible for procuring much of the group’s weaponry and equipment.

In 2010, Mabhouh was assassinated in his hotel room in Dubai after being meticulously tracked by 11 Mossad agents using foreign passports.

His death initially baffled police, as his door was locked from the inside. Later on, it was discovered that he had been given a strong muscle relaxant by the assassins, electrocuted and then suffocated by a pillow.

The assassination caused a major diplomatic incident due to the use of UK and European passports by the Israeli Mossad agents, which led to several European countries launching investigations into Mossad activities and even to the arrest of one of the suspects in Poland at the behest of Germany.