Targeted assassination: the least bad option

by Maskil on February 19, 2008

This piece was originally intended to refer to the recent (11/02/2008) JTA Breaking News item “Hamas leaders go underground”, rather than the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, but was overtaken by those events. According to the JTA story:

Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have gone into hiding for fear they could be targeted for assassination by Israel.

Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas politician in Gaza, and the commander of the Islamist group’s terrorist operations, Ahmed Jaabari, disappeared from public view this week, Palestinian sources said Monday.

The move appeared to be a response to Israel’s decision to step up airstrikes and other pinpoint military operations against Hamas following its cross-border rocket salvos.

While I’m reluctant to assume the role of armchair general (or corporal), I do believe we should support Israel’s right to use tools such as targeted assassination in order to deter or defend itself against terror attacks. Perhaps the only proviso should be that attacks are reserved for those individuals whose technical or leadership skills make a significant contribution to the terror organization. In this regard, the debate should not be about whether the character or abilities of the individual make a difference, but about what other factors (if any) make a difference.

In one respect, I would go even further than current Israeli policy apparently dictates: refusing to respect the arbitrary distinction between the so-called military and political wings of terrorist organizations. These distinctions might be very convenient for the organizations themselves, and protect the undeserving from the consequences of their endeavour, but there’s no reason why Israel (or the West) should be bound by them. There is a very thin line between those who promote and facilitate terror, and those who control or carry out the operations. We should permit ourselves to cross it at will. In particular, the spokesmen for organizations such as Hamas should see themselves as having a target on their chests. Those who stand in front of the TV cameras in their tailored suits and justify the murder and maiming of civilians should consider themselves martyrs in the making.

Those who criticise the scale and proportionality of Israel’s operations in Lebanon during the First Hezbollah War should welcome the use of targeted assassination and surgical strikes, where collateral damage is kept to the bare minimum (keeping in mind that these are military operations, not day trips).

Is targeted assassination a moral response to terror? Of that I have no doubt.

Is it effective? I’m less certain about the answers to that question, and I do think that Israel ought to have more arrows in the quiver of possible responses to terror and other attacks by non- or semi-state actors.

Does it provide a complete solution to the problem of rocket and terror attacks across Israel’s borders, and against Jewish and Israeli “targets” worldwide? Obviously not. I for one, however, would rather read about Hamas kingpins scrambling unheroically for cover than about the children of Sderot traumatized by the nightmare of Kassams and Colour Red rocket warning sirens.

Until something better comes along, let’s think of it as our least bad option.

Links/Reading/Resources:

Hamas leaders go underground

Not everyone is replaceable – Haaretz – Israel News

Imad Mughniyah: A worthwhile target – The Telegraph

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