National Security & Defense

The Efficacy and Morality of Targeted Killings

REUTERS/Nayef Hashlamoun
Rethinking the question of state-sponsored assassination.

The use of assassination raises two difficult sets of questions.

First: Is it effective? Can the elimination of an individual significantly change the course of history? Make the world a safer place? Save the lives of other human beings?

Second: Is it morally and legally justified? Is it ethically and judicially legitimate for a country to employ the gravest of all crimes in any code of ethics or law — the premeditated taking of a human life — in order to protect its own citizens?

Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world. Israel’s vast experience in this arena thus has much to teach us. And indeed, a careful look at the history of Israel’s targeted killings shows us that the use of assassination as a weapon is effective when it is part of an organized, comprehensive, and sustained campaign based on quality intelligence, and when the security forces are capable of dealing with countermeasures taken by the enemy.

For example, the series of hits after the 1972 Munich Olympic Games made the PLO stop its terrorist attacks outside the Middle East and caused heavy operational damage and plummeting morale inside the organization. Moreover, the targeted killings carried out during the Second Intifada succeeded, for the first time in history, at defeating something that had once been considered indestructible: suicide terrorism. Those assassinations proved that continuous, routine strikes at the operational level — the commanders and the leaders of terrorist organizations — could bring even the most fanatical terrorists to their knees. And the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, which the Iranians are convinced were the Mossad’s doing, were, according to CIA chief Michael Hayden, the most important and effective component of the campaign waged against the Iranian nuclear project, because they sowed terror in those charged with carrying out the project.

In general, Israel prefers to execute pinpoint operations rather than engaging in all-out warfare, believing that it is wiser to eliminate a single key enemy right away than to wait for him to cause immeasurable mass destruction later on. Many of the hundreds of Israeli officials I’ve interviewed also claim that assassination is much more humane than a large-scale war, which would necessarily incur countless casualties on both sides.

On the other hand, Israel’s history also makes it clear that isolated, occasional, sporadic assassinations — as opposed to those that are part of a comprehensive, consistent campaign — have not been effective, especially when there is also an unreadiness or inability to cope with the possible repercussions of such killings. The same is true when the motivation for a killing is revenge, the desire to display strength, or the need to shift public opinion, rather than a clear-cut tactical goal.

For example, the attempts to weaken Hamas in the 1990s by disposing of the head of its military branch, Yihyeh Ayash, and the head of its political department, Khaled Mashal, only strengthened the organization. Israel was not prepared to cope with the fallout that resulted from these leaders’ deaths: Hamas mounted five suicide-bombing operations in response, killing 59 innocents and causing Shimon Peres to lose the Israeli general election to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Oftentimes, assassinations of leaders have ended up creating a situation far worse than the previous status quo. The killing of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas ai-Musawi in 1992 only elevated his successor, Hassan Nasrallah, who was a much more effective leader and did much more damage to Israel. The removal of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004 led to the organization’s ultimate incorporation into the Iran-led Radical Front, a development that the sheikh had blocked when he was alive. This outcome caused Israel significantly more trouble than anything Yassin could have done had he lived.

Israel’s history of targeted killings has seen a series of impressive tactical successes, but it has also led to a fair number of significant political failures.

Moreover, the moral price of Israel’s assassination policy has been significant, and the legality of its implementation in many cases is dubious at best. Like almost all other intelligence agencies in the modern era, as soon as they had the capability, the Israeli intelligence services often went beyond what they’d been authorized to do. In effect, two parallel legal systems have arisen in Israel as a result: a written one for the regular citizenry and a second, unwritten one, which permitted the military and intelligence arms of the state to torture and assassinate with the government’s tacit blessing. At first, this led to untold numbers of killings, all of them extrajudicial. When he was minister of defense, Ariel Sharon was involved in a number of such operations in Lebanon, and he came very close to embroiling the country in some horrific crimes, which were prevented only because of the bravery of several junior and senior officers who stood up to him.

The exposure of this covert legal system led to its termination and forced the intelligence community to comply with legal codes and to undergo close consultations with legal advisers. Since then, targeted assassinations have taken place in accordance with the law and orderly governance, at least as these concepts are perceived by the State of Israel. On the other hand, the fact that such killings enjoy continued legal supervision has intensified their use as a tactic, one that Israel now uses more than at any other period in its history. No less significantly, the open legalization of assassinations has given decision makers more freedom to endanger and sometimes even kill innocent civilians if they are near the intended target of the hit. Hundreds of innocent Palestinian bystanders were killed as a result of “legal” assassination during the Second Intifada.

The Mossad, AMAN, and Shin Bet are powerful, extraordinarily effective bodies that have provided Israel’s leaders with operational responses to almost every focused problem they’ve been asked to solve. But their very success has created the illusion among the country’s leaders that covert operations can be a strategic and not just a tactical tool. Israel’s leaders have even become convinced that operational responses might actually be used to end the geographic, ethnic, religious, and national disputes in which Israel is currently mired. This has come at the expense of the vision and statesmanship necessary to reach a political solution, something that by its very nature entails compromise, but has a far higher likelihood of bringing about genuine change.

Israel’s history of targeted killings has seen a series of impressive tactical successes, but it has also led to a fair number of significant political failures.

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