The Hypocrisy of Targeted Killings

The opening scenes of ‘Munich’ are chilling and bloody and Director Steven Spielberg confronts the audience immediately with the overwhelming violence that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film focuses primarily on the Israeli response to the 1972 Munich massacre where the Palestinian organization Black September took Israeli Olympic athletes hostage. The debacle ended in the deaths of seventeen people, including the hostages, terrorists and a German policeman. Operation Wrath of God followed in which Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, executed clandestine operations into Europe to actively seek out and assassinate those linked to the Munich Massacre. While this was not the first example of targeted killings by Israel against its enemies, it is perhaps the most high profile. Since the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2002, the uprising by Palestinians, Israel has adopted a more public policy of targeted killings. This has drawn strong criticism from the international community, including the United States. Such counterterrorism measures are fraught with legal and moral dangers and consensus is far from unanimous.

In ‘Munich’, Avner and his crew do not appear to be operating within the law as they are conducting a covert operation against their targets using deceitful means. One of the criteria in international law for such killings is that it must not be carried out through ‘treacherous’ means. However, such criteria is not easily applied to more recent conflicts. It has been argued that if Israel is engaged in armed conflict with such groups as Hamas and Fatah, it is within the law to specifically target those identified as combatants. There is little doubt conflict exists between the various parties and so many academics argue that legally, Israel has the right to preemptively remove any threat to its citizens. The legality of such killings has also proved problematic for Israel’s judicial system as set out in the High Court decision in 2006. The court determined that the legality of targeted killings must be determined after examination of each individual case and that international law does not dictate an absolute ban on such killings. What is clear from this decision and reaction from the international community is that the legality of targeted killings is dependent on individual interpretation and often moral conclusions.

There are other arguments that have been put forward for the use of targeted killing, independent from a legal standpoint. Law enforcement has been discounted as a viable option to targeted killings because traditionally the Palestinian Authority will not work with Israel in arresting terrorists and there is a higher degree of risk for officials and civilians in carrying out arrests. The most obvious advantage in Israel’s current policy is that it eliminates terrorist threat at its source, stopping potential deaths from occurring and leaving the leadership and infrastructure of a group like Hamas disoriented and weak. Instead of planning attacks leaders are forced to concentrate on survival. It also creates a deterrent for possible recruits who fear being targeted by Israeli forces. Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of targeted killing is that collateral damage is far lower than in a full-scale ground invasion as was evidenced in Gaza earlier this year. Considering the latest report from the United Nations claiming human rights abuses by Israel, it does seem that targeted killings are a more viable option than ground attack.

Still, there are strong moral and practical grounds for abandoning a policy of targeted killing. Often terrorist groups are organized into independent cells which when eliminated have little impact on the overall operations of an organization, because another cell will simply step in to take their place. In the process a martyr is created out of such attacks and used as a recruiting tool, thus provoking the Palestinian population to retaliate and seek revenge against Israeli civilians. The prolonged targeting also draws rival Palestinian factions and organizations together in a common cause against Israel, increasing the level of threat through a more organized and larger enemy. One of the most negative results of maintaining a public policy of targeted killing is that it diminishes a standard in conflict that protects leaders and civilians from being attacked. The moral and legal line becomes blurred and hostile forces feel that some forms of assassination have become legitimate.

Unfortunately it becomes very hard to condemn Israel for its actions when world leaders like the US adopt a similar policy. Historically, targeted killing has been utilized by the US in countries such as Nicaragua, Libya, Afghanistan, and Latin America. However, the US strongly condemned Israeli use of targeted killing until September 11 occurred and the resulting war saw the US adopting a more public policy, similar to Israel. The Bush administration tried to separate its policy from Israel by stating that the situations are different because Israel is hurting the ‘Peace Process’ in the Middle East. This policy can only be described as hypocritical and unhelpful. By actively seeking out and killing targets, as they did in Yemen in 2002, the US is also hurting the international community’s ability to establish peace with Islamist groups and potentially encouraging more recruits to carry out new attacks against the US.

While there is strong disagreement around the world, what becomes starkly clear from this debate is that international law is no longer adequate in defining conflict that arises through global terrorism. Until this deficiency is rectified, such nations as Israel and the US will have to rely on their own interpretations of the law and moral reaction from their community. Regardless of legal issues, too often we examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in isolation from its troubled and complicated background. Targeted killings occurred in the 1970s as illustrated in ‘Munich’ and they still occur today. This policy has had little affect on Israeli and Palestinian civilian deaths which still occur frequently. While it may be exceptionally difficult to do so, one party must take a higher moral stance and decide not to be the one to strike back in retaliation. Perhaps over time, such bitterness and animosity will dwindle and the Middle East will have a real chance at peace.