Israel Report

July 2001         

War is Not Criminal Justice

By Evelyn Gordon - July, 31 2001
Israel's policy of "targeted killings" - i.e. assassinating terrorists - has been widely criticized both at home and abroad. The criticism divides into two categories: practical and moral.

The practical argument - that assassinations provoke violence rather than deterring it - is an empirical question, and the jury is still out. Any deterrence policy takes time to have an impact, and it is thus too soon to know whether this policy will reduce terrorism in the long run. But the moral argument - that "targeted killings" are unjustifiable extrajudicial executions - stems from a fundamental misconception: that a military conflict can, or should, operate according to the rules of criminal justice.

Targeted killings would certainly constitute an appalling criminal justice system. A proper system of justice requires the suspect to have a chance to refute the evidence against him, and it requires the evidence to be judged by someone other than the accuser. Assassinations obviously meet neither requirement.

War, however, operates by very different rules. In war, you are not required to wait for enemy soldiers to shoot at you; it is legitimate to open fire first. Nor are you required to prove that a given soldier has either shot at your troops in the past or intends to do so in the future - his membership in an enemy force suffices to make him a legitimate target. And this is precisely the rationale for "targeted killings": they target known members of enemy forces in the context of a military conflict.

It must be remembered that this is how Hamas, Islamic Jihad and most Fatah organizations see themselves: as armed soldiers fighting a war. All of these groups have openly declared that they intend to continue terrorist attacks until Israel either leaves the territories or disappears entirely, depending on the group's orientation. And reality on the ground supports this view - a 10-month-old conflict with no end in sight, which has produced a steady two to three Israeli deaths a week (and more on the Palestinian side), is not a problem of law enforcement, it is a war of attrition.

Most civilized countries agree that even war should be governed by certain ethical guidelines. Perhaps the most important is that, in so far as it is possible, each side should attempt to kill the other's soldiers rather than civilians. Palestinian militants blatantly ignore this principle, preferring to target Israeli civilians. But "targeted killings" represent an attempt to apply this code - and they have proven reasonably successful in this regard. More than any other Israeli tactic to date, targeted killings have minimized civilian casualties.

Shooting back when shot at, for instance, is generally considered morally legitimate. But since Palestinian gunmen frequently operate from built-up areas, Israeli return fire in such situations often kills more women and children than terrorists. In contrast, targeted killings have produced very few civilian casualties, precisely because they are targeted: High-precision missiles are used to take out certain individuals at times of the IDF's choosing, with the timing generally selected to minimize the presence of civilians in the area.

It must be stressed that the "targets" themselves are usually not innocent civilians. In some cases, the killings are clearly justified, as in the assassination of Mohammed Bisharat and two other Islamic Jihad activists on July 1. Subsequent investigation revealed that the car in which they were riding at the time of the IDF's assault had been heading toward the Green Line laden with 50 kg. of explosives. Since Islamic Jihad holds the record for suicide bombings during the current intifada, those explosives were probably not meant for peaceful purposes.

But even if the intelligence information that prompted a given assassination was wrong, and the target was not on the verge of carrying out a major attack (the usual pretext for these killings) - or indeed, even if the target was never involved in an actual terror attack at all - all of the victims of targeted killings are, at the very least, known members of militant organizations that have openly declared a terrorist war on Israel. And as such, they are legitimate military targets - far more so than the innocent women and children who are merely unlucky enough to reside in an apartment building that Palestinian gunmen are using as a base.

Does all this mean that targeted killings are not ugly? Of course not. War is always ugly. But short of doing nothing at all in the face of murderous assaults on its own civilians - which is hardly a tenable moral option, as any government's first duty is to protect its citizens - targeted killings are far less harmful to Palestinian civilians than any of Israel's other alternatives. And in a war, that is the best that can be hoped for.

©2001 - Jerusalem Post

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