WASHINGTON — Killing Hamas leaders wounds the terrorist group, Israeli and Palestinian officials agree. At question is whether moderate Palestinians — and U.S. influence in the region — are also casualties of Israel's targeted strikes.
Israel has killed at least 11 leaders of Hamas since the group claimed responsibility for a deadly Jerusalem bus bombing on Aug. 19, which killed 21 people, including at least five children.
Israel declared "all-out war" against the group after the bus bombing.
The new frequency of the killings — and the targeting of political as well as military leaders — have led some to wonder whether the Bush administration's "road map" peace plan, which envisions an end to terrorism and a Palestinian state within three years, is still viable.
"It has a serious effect on the Hamas leadership, on the one hand," Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who now lobbies for the Palestinians in Washington, said of the killings.
On the other hand, he said, "it undermines U.S. credibility on the road map."
Abington said the killings would shift moderate Arab regimes — key to the Bush administration's plans not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but for Iraq — away from support for the United States.
"Israel is assassinating left and right, and the appearance is that the United States is acquiescing," Abington said.
The lack of moderate Arab support in 2000 helped scuttle the Camp David talks when Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat refused to take painful steps — such as conceding parts of Jerusalem — knowing he would be on his own.
Israelis say that defeating Hamas ultimately could remove the extremist yoke that has held back the Palestinian leadership until now.
"Hamas has no interest in any political solution," said Dore Gold, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "Israel would have preferred the Palestinian Authority to handle Hamas, but they have consistently refused to meet their road map responsibilities and dismantle the terrorist infrastructure."
In any case, the Hamas attacks — and Israeli retaliation — may mean that the United States fundamentally has to reassess its policies in the region.
"American policy is now in a shambles, the road map no longer seems viable, the cease-fire is in tatters," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University in Washington.
If the United States has problems with the intensity of Israel's reaction, its public expressions have been muted at best.
"Israel has a right to defend herself, but Israel needs to take into account the effect that actions they take have on the peace process," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after Israel killed top Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab in a rocket attack on Aug. 21.
Shanab was a political leader who helped broker the recent cease-fire, signed onto by the main Palestinian terrorist groups, which led to a brief period of calm. His killing came just two months after Israel attempted to kill Hamas spokesman and senior member Abdel Aziz Rantissi.
Any American attempt to distinguish between political and military leaders runs the risk of hypocrisy, said Matthew Levitt, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"We don't make a distinction between Osama bin Laden and his foot soldiers, even though bin Laden is not the trigger puller," Levitt said. "Those who commit acts of terrorism and those who order them carried out are just as culpable."
Gold said that political leaders and spokesmen serve the same tactical ends as bomb makers.
"Israel does not accept the argument that there is a difference between the political and military wings of Hamas," he said. "The U.S. used to be very concerned when al-Qaida spokesmen would appear on Al-Jazeera because they could have had operational messages mixed into their language. The same is true for Hamas spokesmen like Rantissi."
Targeting political leaders is not new: Israel made no distinctions between political and military officials in its famous action against Black September after the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Still, Israel's recent intensity against Hamas is unprecedented in the way it has confronted the 3-year-old intifada.
Levitt, a former FBI analyst, said there is a tactical advantage to maintaining the intensity of the attacks.
"Having a situation in which all of Hamas has to go underground, moving it from desktops to laptops, is a significant blow to its ability to carry out operations," he said.
Abington agreed that is true in the short term — but worried that ultimately the targeted killings would only reinforce the militant group.
"It undermines Abu Mazen," Abington said, using the popular name for Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.
"One reason he has been reluctant to take moves against Hamas is because he thinks the Palestinian street does not support him. Assassinations only inflame support for Hamas."
It was a point echoed by Brown, the Middle East expert.
"From the Israeli perspective, it's clear that suicide bombing depends first on capability, and also on a social environment that makes it possible," Brown said. "Assassination targets the first, but makes the second worse."
Still, Brown said, "It strikes me that the killings are motivated by the lack of other options.''