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The Necessity of Targeted Assassinations

The Israeli reply to terror is moral and appropriate.

July 25, 2002|STEVEN R. DAVID | Steven R. David is a professor of international relations and associate dean of academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Israel's killing of Hamas leader Salah Shehada--and 14 Palestinian civilians--has provoked a major international outcry. Even President Bush, who usually supports Israeli actions, condemned the airstrike as "heavy-handed."

Although the Israelis erred in this instance by launching an attack that killed so many innocents, it would be a mistake to conclude that their policy of targeted killing is wrong. In fact, targeted killing is a moral and appropriate response to the terror launched against Israel by Palestinian leaders.

Targeted killing is the Israeli policy of intentionally killing individuals who are on their way to commit a terrorist attack or those who are behind such attacks.

It is not a new policy. Israel has pursued such attacks throughout its history, even at one point attempting to kill Yasser Arafat--a failure that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has publicly lamented.

What is new is the scale of the attacks, which has grown since the launching of the second intifada almost two years ago and the increased use of sophisticated military weapons such as Apache helicopters and F-16 jet fighters in the operations.

There is much that is distasteful about targeted killings. They provoke murderous retaliations, burn informers, create martyrs, complicate peace negotiations, divert intelligence resources and promote cooperation among Israel's enemies.

Individuals are killed without due process. Most important, there is no compelling evidence that they are effective in reducing terrorism.

A record number of Israeli civilians have become victims of terrorist attacks at the same time that targeted killings have reached their peak.

So how can such a policy be justified?

Targeted killings make three important contributions to Israeli security. First, by keeping terrorists on the run and gradually eliminating some of the skilled operatives, Israel hopes to eventually reduce the terrorist threat.

As bad as things are now, they may have been even worse, or would get worse in the future, without the policy of targeted killing.

Second, when targeted killing works, the only one killed is the perpetrator (or backer) of the terrorist act. This is far better than major military sweeps that kill and injure countless innocents.

Finally, targeted killing provides a sense of revenge and retribution for the Israeli public, which understandably demands a response to terrorism. No Israeli government could survive Palestinian terrorist attacks without a forceful response.

As long as the Palestinian Authority is unwilling or unable to curb those who deliberately seek to kill innocent Israelis and bring these attackers to justice, it is up to Israel to do so. Targeted killing does this, and at a cost that is far less harmful to the Palestinians than its alternatives.

Targeted killing will not bring peace to the Middle East. Only a political solution that calls for an independent Palestinian state can do that.

A policy of targeted killing also must carry with it adequate safeguards, including civilian oversight. Targeted killing must focus only on combatants. Political leaders, no matter how odious, must be spared. And targeted killing cannot be carried out forever. It is a policy that makes sense only during war or armed conflict. Once a peace settlement is reached, it must end.

For a region going through a horrendous time, targeted killing is the worst possible policy--except for all the others.

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