WASHINGTON: There's no surprise in Hamas eulogising the man whose assassination last week – by Israeli drone-launched missile — sparked this all-out war between Gaza and Israel. But get past the requisite Israeli demonising of Ahmad al-Jabari and you find something that approximates respect and, in some quarters, even a belief that taking out Jabari was a strategic error by Israel.
Hamas gives away little about the living, but in death there are nods of agreement that Jabari was the military strategist who made an army with a serious arsenal out of a militia once armed with such amateurish home-made rockets that some Israeli analysts dismissed them as "flying stove pipes".
Much of the detail on the 51-year-old Jabari's success in rebuilding Hamas's military wing – the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades – is articulated by Israeli security sources who, as was proved by the targeting information they had for the death strike on Jabari, still run a formidable network of informers in Gaza.
Palestinians help extinguish the fire after an Israeli airstrike on the car of Ahmad al-Jabari in Gaza City. Photo: Reuters
This point was borne out by Israeli Air Force colonel Uri Dromi, who told Britain's Daily Telegraph after the death of the Hamas leader: "You must have human intelligence."
The most sophisticated weapon known to be in the Hamas munitions bunkers, reportedly acquired this year, is the Iranian Fajr-5 rocket, which carries a 90-kilogram warhead and has a range of more than 70 kilometres – putting both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within striking distance.
Israel estimates that Hamas had about 100 Fajr-5s, but claims to have destroyed a good number of them in the air strikes of the past week.
Assassinated ... Ahmed Al-Jabari, the former commander of Hamas's al-Qassam brigades. Photo: Reuters
Unnamed Israeli security figures told The New York Times that trained crews used underground pads to launch the rockets, which were hauled from Iran to Sudan and then trucked to Egypt, where they were broken into parts, which were then smuggled into Gaza by tunnel.
"The smuggling route involves salaried employees from Hamas along the way, Iranian technical experts travelling on forged passports and government approval in Sudan," the report said, giving credence to the widely held belief that a mysterious air strike on a Sudanese munitions factory at the end of October was an Israeli bid to interrupt that supply chain.
The same goes for an Israeli hit in Dubai early in 2010, in which a Hamas operative was assassinated — purportedly because he too was a key part of the weapons supply chain. That case confirmed that Israel resorts to forged passports, dozens of which were revealed to have been used by the Mossad hit team and its associates.
The Fajr-5 is a quantum leap ahead of the early missiles Jabari's Gaza workshops first produced in 2001. Called the Qassam-1, they flew erratically for just four kilometres, carrying a very small warhead. By 2005, the Qassam had evolved to a range of 12 kilometres and a warhead of 15 kilograms, but still rated poorly as a targeted weapon.
It was not until 2008 that Hamas reportedly acquired its first foreign-produced rockets: the Grad from Iran and Libya and, in time, produced locally (with a range of almost 20 kilometres and an 18-kilogram warhead); and the WS-1E from China (45-kilometre range, 22-kilogram warhead).
The Grad stocks reportedly are counted in the hundreds; the Qassams and other smaller homemade weapons in the thousands.
The Israeli sources claimed Jabari was also producing long-range rockets and drones he intended to fly in Israeli airspace — just as Israeli unmanned aircraft are constantly patrolling the skies of Gaza.
Alluding to a particular air strike on Friday night, one of the Israelis was quoted as saying: "What we took care of last night was their own production facility for [unmanned aerial vehicles]. This was all the work of Jabari, who was a very sophisticated and strategic thinker."
Israeli officials express amazement that the Farj-5 rockets, more than six metres long and weighing more than 900 kilograms, could be trucked through Egypt unnoticed. But Hamas, no doubt, would argue that its foreign arms deliveries are no different to Israel's.
In the wake of the Israeli assault on Gaza at the end of 2008, Amnesty International accused both sides of using foreign-supplied weapons for attacks in which civilians died.
In a briefing paper released weeks after the fighting, Amnesty said: "Munitions from the USA, Israel's main foreign arms supplier, were used by Israeli forces. Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets that had been smuggled in or made of components from abroad."
Referring to the briefing paper's list of artillery and tank shells, mortar fins, the remnants of Hellfire and other airborne missiles and big F-16-delivered bombs, Amnesty's Middle East director, Malcolm Smart, said: "To a large extent, Israel's military offensive in Gaza was carried out with weapons, munitions and military equipment supplied by the USA — and paid for with US taxpayers' money."
Known in Gaza as "the general" or "the chief of staff" and obsessive about his personal security, Jabari had survived four earlier assassination attempts – one of which claimed his eldest son and several others from his extended family. He had been jailed by Israel, for 13 years, and by the forces of the Palestinian Authority, run by the secular Fatah political faction.
He had a key role in the 2007 battle for control of Gaza, in which Hamas forces defeated American-trained and funded forces from Fatah.
He is credited with being the architect of the 2006 cross-border mission that resulted in the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held for more than five years before being exchanged late last year for more than 1000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Jabari was also deeply involved in the negotiations for Shalit's release, personally delivering his hostage to Cairo after his release was agreed and, surprisingly, allowing himself to be filmed by television cameras.
It was the Hamas strongman's role in the Shalit saga that provoked one of the more intriguing Israeli responses to his death, by Gershon Baskin, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, who initiated the secret back channel through which the young soldier's release was negotiated.
"I believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill Mr Jabari," Baskin wrote in The New York Times last week.
His point was not that Jabari was a man of peace. But in the prisoner exchange negotiations, Baskin conclude that Jabari was interested in a long-term ceasefire and that it was Jabari who had been responsible for enforcing previous ceasefire agreements – to the extent that they had held.
"On the morning that he was killed, Mr Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended ceasefire with Israel agreed upon by me and Hamas' deputy foreign minister Mr Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt," he wrote.
The difference here was that there was to be a new system of early warnings, based on Israeli intelligence, which on being relayed to Jabari would give him time to intervene to prevent the launching of a rocket – particularly by the more headstrong, non-Hamas factions that operate from Gaza.
"Other key Hamas leaders like Jabari understood the futility of successive rocket attacks against Israel that left no real damage on Israel and dozens of casualties in Gaza [after Israeli retaliation]," Baskin wrote. "Mr Jabari was not prepared to give up the strategy of 'resistance', meaning fighting Israel, but he saw the need for a new strategy and was prepared to agree to a long-term ceasefire."
According to Baskin, the possibility of a long-term ceasefire died with Jabari. He concluded: "This was not inevitable, and cooler heads could have prevailed. Mr Jabari's assassination removes one of the more practical actors on the Hamas side."