Israeli soldiers in the city of Sderot on October 8. Photo: Times of Israel

Israel set up a special unit to hunt down Hamas commandos, whose members were the elite Kidon assassin team of the Mossad intelligence agency.

Israeli media reported last week that the Intelligence and Special Operations Department (Mossad) and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) had established a special unit named Nili, which stands for the phrase “Eternity of Israel will not lie” in Hebrew.

The unit’s main task is to hunt down and kill members of Nukhba. This elite commando force led Hamas’ coordinated attack campaign on Israeli territory on October 7, killing more than 1,400 people.

Nili’s top targets also included senior Hamas commanders behind the attack, such as armed wing leader Mohammed Deif and his deputy Marwan Issa, as well as Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar.

The Israeli government often does not speak up about intelligence activities, including the Nili squad, but experts say there are many reasons for Israel to establish this unit.

“Mossad’s charter clearly states that the force’s mission includes neutralizing threats to Israel and carrying out revenge operations. In other words, hunting down Hamas fighters is part of the agency’s responsibility.” They,” said Shahin Modarres, an expert on Iran-Israel intelligence at the Verona International Security Studies Group (ITSS) based in Italy.

Modarres also believes that this is an attempt to regain the image of Israeli intelligence, which was significantly damaged because it did not detect Hamas’s attack plan early. This group is said to have been quietly training forces and planning attacks in the Gaza Strip for the past two years, right before Tel Aviv’s eyes, but this country’s intelligence did not know.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on October 28 posted a message criticizing Israeli intelligence on social networks, affirming that he “never” was warned about Hamas’s intention to launch an attack. The Israeli leader later deleted the post and publicly apologized, saying that this was something that “should not have been said” in the context of the country’s focus on hostilities.

According to Ahron Bregman, an Israeli political scientist at King’s College, based in London, Nili’s goals are similar to the revenge campaign called “The Wrath of God”, conducted by Israeli intelligence to assassinate Israel. Assassinated people associated with the Black September group. This is the organization that kidnapped and murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team attending the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.

“Mossad hunted down members of the Black September group and assassinated them one by one. Nili was expected to do the same,” Bregman said.

To carry out the “Wrath of God” campaign that lasted more than two decades, Israel is said to have established five combat groups, with the core being Mossad’s elite Kidon assassin force. Unlike other spy organizations, Kidon agents do not seek to carry out assassinations discreetly but often take down targets using ostentatious methods, such as using explosives, to convey a message of deterrence and threaten opposing forces.

Kidon agents carried out the majority of assassinations of Black September group members. This force is also believed to have assassinated a number of Palestinian officials and key scientists in Iran’s nuclear program.

It is likely that Kidon agents will also join the Nili unit, according to expert Modarres. However, he said that the force will face more challenges in the Gaza Strip than the “Wrath of God” operation due to the difference in the circumstances under which the operations were conducted.

“Nili’s campaign took place while Israel was in conflict with Hamas,” Modarres said. “The hunt for militants hiding in the Gaza Strip will become more complicated when it is conducted in parallel with major Israeli military operations.”

Modarres believes that the Nili squad will not appear in the first phase of the ground campaign because this is too dangerous for them. Instead, agents will enter the Gaza Strip after Hamas forces have been neutralized in their ability to resist the search for surviving members.

Expert Bregman commented that Nili members will enter the Gaza Strip at the same time as Israeli infantry instead of waiting until the fighting ends.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar spoke in Gaza City in April 2022. Photo: AFP

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar spoke in Gaza City in April 2022. Photo: AFP

“They will have two main tasks. One is to search for free hostages if possible. The other is to hunt for Hamas members who have attacked and murdered Israeli civilians,” he stated.

Bregman also believes that the targets that Nili wants to assassinate will not be limited to the Gaza Strip but will also include high-ranking members of Hamas who are abroad.

“The fact that Nili has Mossad members shows that Israel will also target Hamas members who are not currently in the Gaza Strip but are in places like Turkey and Qatar, such as former leader Khaled Meshaal or the head of the civil society. Hamas political office Ismail Haniyeh,” this expert said.

Unlike Shin Bet, the agency in charge of domestic security, Mossad mainly undertakes intelligence activities outside of Israel and is famous for a series of kidnapping and assassination campaigns abroad.

Modarres believes that Nili will gradually expand the list of targets to assassinate. The highest levels will approve this list of the Israeli government before being deployed, but Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely not be informed, so he can say he did not know about assassinations in schools. In case any diplomatic incident occurs.

“Government officials need to maintain a certain distance from intelligence agencies because the activities of this force can cause many risks to foreign relations,” Modarres said.

In 1997, Israeli agents tried to assassinate Khaled Meshaal in Jordan’s capital, Amman but failed and were captured by the country’s forces, causing a diplomatic crisis between Israel and Jordan.

Tel Aviv then had to agree to release many Palestinian prisoners, including Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin, to cool tensions with Amman. Yassin was killed by the Israeli army 7 years later in the Gaza Strip.