In the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) use the term "focused foiling" (Hebrew: סיכול ממוקד sikul memukad) against those it considers proven to have intentions of performing a specific act of violence in the very near future or to be linked indirectly with several acts of violence (organizing, planning, researching means of destruction etc), thus raising the likelihood that his or her assassination would disrupt similar activities in the future. The Israeli army maintains that it pursues such military operations to prevent imminent attacks when it has no discernible means of making an arrest or foiling such attacks by other methods. On December 14, 2006, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that targeted killing is a legitimate form of self-defense against terrorists, and outlined several conditions for its use.[1]. This article presents a review of the Israeli strategy of targeted strikes against leaders or operatives of Palestinian fighting groups, opposed to the State of Israel or its policies. It is not a general discussion of assassinations, nor a list of Israeli assassinations.

Strike methods and well known targeted killings

Strike methods


The AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship, which is used to carry out many of the targeted killings, due to its ability to shoot guided munitions

Many strikes have been carried out by Israeli Air Force attack helicopters (mainly the AH-64 Apache) that fire guided missiles toward the target, after the Shin Bet supplies intelligence for the target. Sometimes, when heavier bombs are needed, the strike is carried out by F-16 warplanes.

Other strategies employ strike teams of Israeli intelligence or military operatives. These operatives infiltrate areas known to harbor targeted individuals, and eliminate their assigned targets with small arms fire or use of explosives. Snipers have also been utilized, as was in the case of Dr Thabet Thabet in 2001.[2]

Regardless of the method used, intelligence on targets is critical. As regards helicopter strikes, orbiting UAVs or unmanned drones, linked to intelligent monitoring and eavesdropping systems, provide targeting data to assigned strike aircraft. Special care is taken to minimize civilian casualties, and sometimes strikes were aborted if the civilian presence near the target was too large to be politically acceptable.

Targeted killings

Some of the targeted killings by the Israeli military were Hamas leaders Salah Shahade (July 2002), Sheikh Ahmed Yassin (March 2004), Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi (April 2004) and Adnan al-Ghoul (October 2004), all targeted in the Al-Aqsa Intifada.[3] The most recent targeted operation killed senior Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, on 1 January 2009.[4]

While the term "targeted killing" usually describes airborne attacks, Israeli security forces have assassinated top Palestinian militants in the past by other means, although this has never been confirmed officially.

Some of the known operations include:[5]

Controversies relating to the targeted killing policy

The exact nature of the proof required by the Israelis for the killings is classified, as it involves clandestine military intelligence-oriented means and operational decisions. However all Mossad assassinations must have the approval of the Prime Minister. [13] rather than being a part of a published justice system executed by lawyers and judges. International law provides two distinct normative paradigms which govern targeted killings in situations of law enforcement and the conduct of hostilities. As a form of individualized or surgical warfare, the method of targeted killing requires a "microscopic" interpretation of the law regulating the conduct of hostilities which leads nuanced results reflecting the fundamental principles underlying international humanitarian law. Any targeted killing not directed against a legitimate military target remains subject to the law enforcement paradigm, which imposes extensive restraints on the practice and even under the paradigm of hostilities, no person can be lawfully liquidated without further considerations.[14]

Proponents of targeted killings

Proponents of the strategy argue that targeted killings are within the rules of war.[15] They contend they are a measured response to terrorism, that focuses on actual perpetrators of militant attacks, while largely avoiding innocent casualties. They point out that targeted killings prevented some attacks against Israeli targets, weakened the effectiveness of militant groups, kept potential bomb makers on the run, and served as deterrence against militant operations. They also argue that targeted killings are less harmful toward Palestinian non-combatants than full-scale military incursion into Palestinian cities.[16] The IDF claims that targeted killings are only pursued to prevent future terrorism acts, not as revenge for past activities as such they are not extrajudicial. The IDF also claims that this practice is only used when there is absolutely no practical way of foiling the future acts by other means (e.g., arrest) with minimal risk to its soldiers or civilians. The IDF also claims that the practice is only used when there is a certainty in the identification of the target, in order to minimize harm to innocent bystanders.[17] They argue that because many of the Palestinians who have targeted Israel over the years have enjoyed the protection of Arab governments, extraditing them for trial in Israel has often proved impossible. They argue that Israeli governments have long used targeted killings as a last resort, when there were no peaceful options for bringing suspected terrorists to account.[18]

Opponents of targeted killings

Opponents of Israel's policy of targeted killings claim that it violates the laws of war [15]. They feel these assassinations are extrajudicial and feel that this violates the norms and values of a democratic society.[16]

Some question whether the IDF claims of no other way is correct and debate the secret process the of IDF deliberations about it. Moreover many feel that actual injury and death of innocent bystanders, unintended as they may be, makes a strong claim against targeted killings. Some hold that such strikes do not reduce terrorism, but encourage more recruits to join militant factions, and are a setback to the Middle East peace process.[19]

In 2003, 27 Israeli Air Force pilots composed a letter of protest to the Air Force commander Dan Halutz, announcing their refusal to continue and perform attacks on targets within Palestinian population centers, and claiming that the occupation of the Palestinians 'morally corrupts the fabric of Israeli society'.[20] After more than 30 signed, 4 later recanted. One, an El Al pilot, was threaten with dismissal and another lost his civilian job.[20]

Rule of Law

Israel's Supreme Court has rejected an attempt to declare that the policy of targeted killings of Palestinian militants is illegal as the court noted that not every killing complied with international law, but said the legality of operations should be assessed on a "case by case basis".[21] It also said its decision that caution was needed to prevent civilian casualties. "Innocent civilians should not be targeted," it said. "Intelligence on the (targeted) person's identity must be carefully verified." The court also allowed for the possibility of compensation claims from civilians.[22]

Treaties do exist such as the Oslo Accords, Cairo agreements, Wye River and Sharm al-Sheikh memoranda. These underscored the Palestinian responsibility to fight militancy using its twelve-branch security apparatus, created and assisted by Israel and US Central Intelligence (CIA) to do just that. Defenders of this practice argue the Palestinian National Authority has not only failed to do so, it has released militants from prison and supplied them with arms and funding. Furthermore, in many cases in which Israel gave the PA solid information about attacks in the making, the PA, instead of arresting the perpetrators, informed them that Israel knew of their plans.[23] As such in a legal opinion, Israeli attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein wrote: "The laws of combat which are part of international law, permit injuring, during a period of warlike operations, someone who has been positively identified as a person who is working to carry out fatal attacks against Israeli targets, those people are enemies who are fighting against Israel, with all that implies, while committing fatal terror attacks and intending to commit additional attacks—all without any countermeasures by the PA."[24]

It can also be argued that the Palestinian National Authority is not a state and no government recognizes Hamas contol in Gaza as such this conflict is not bound by the set of norms, rules, and treaties with which many states conflict occur.[25] But even if it were argued that a state conflict is said to exist many say it is in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention (Part 3, Article 1, Section 28) which reads: “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations,” and so they argue that international law explicitly gives Israel the right to conduct military operations against military targets under these circumstances.[26][27]

Opponents to Israeli targeted killings among which are the human rights groups and members of the international community, including Britain, the European Union,[22] Russia, France, India, China, Brazil, South Africa and all Arab States stated that targeted killings violate international laws and create an obstruction to the peace process.[28]

Some regard targeted killings as extrajudicial killing, and argue that it is a rejection of the rule of law and due process.[29][30] They defend that in international law targeted assassination was outlawed in both the 1937 convention of for the Prevention and Repression of Terrorism and the 1973 New York convention.[16][31]

Israeli public support or opposition towards targeted hits

Targeted killings are largely supported by Israeli society to various extents.[32][33] Poll published by Maariv newspaper in July 2001, found that 90 percent of Israeli public support the practice. The belief that targeted killings is the appropriate response to terror attacks appears to be nearly-universal.[16]

Effectiveness of Palestinian attacks and the Israeli response

Strong damage caused by Palestinian attacks

Palestinian attacks against Israel have been costly for Israel. IDF reports show that from the start of the Second Intifada (in 2000) to the Year 2005, Palestinians killed 1,074 Israelis and wounded 7,520. These are serious figures for such a small country, roughly equivalent to 50,000 dead and 300,000 wounded in the United States over five years. Such losses generated immense public pressure from the Israeli public for a forceful response, and ramped up targeted killings were one such outcome.[19]

Statistics on hit policy effectiveness in reducing attacks

But while Palestinian operations caused strong damage, there is evidence that the IDF reprisal targeted killing policy has been salutary in reducing the effectiveness of such attacks although it increased the number of HAMAS attacks between 2001 and 2005.[34] Although the total number of Hamas operations increased, deaths resulting from such attacks plunged from a high of 75 in 2001, to 21 in 2005.[35]

For example, after the targeting of Yassin in 2004 there was a severe increase in the number of attacks carried out (an increase of 299 attacks) yet there were only 4 suicide attacks, a decrease from the previous year.[36]. According to the report by Stahl, following the targeted operation against Yassin, "Suicide terrorism by Hamas decreased by five and the total number of deaths caused by suicidal terrorism also declined by 19. Though the total number of attacks increased the total number of deaths decreased severely: attacks rose by 299 but deaths fell by 27."[37]

Targeted killings may also have been effective, as is witnessed in the political reactions of HAMAS. Stipulations were demanded by HAMAS in the form of Tahadiyehs and Hudnas. It seems HAMAS was “forced to operate at reduced levels of efficiency” and was eventually forced to agree to a Tahadiyeh, likely due to targeted killings.[38]

Hits versus other intervening factors in analyzing effectiveness of Israeli strikes

There are several practical reasons why calculated hits may weaken the effectiveness of terrorist activities. Targeted killings physically eliminate skilled terrorists, bomb makers, forgers, recruiters and other operatives, who need time to develop expertise. Targeted hits also disrupt the opponent's infrastructure and organization, and cause immense stress on individual leaders and fighters, who must constantly move, switch locations and hide. This reduces the flow of information in the terrorist organization and reduces its effectiveness. Assassinations may also serve as a demoralizing agent. Targeted individuals cannot visit their wives, children, relatives or families without severe risk, and may even shirk their names coming out in public for fear of liquidation as Israeli killings of Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdelaziz Rantisi caused Hamas to not publicly identify their replacement, a necessary step to secure his survival.

Continual diplomatic pressure against the Israeli policy, and the announcement of periodic unilateral cease fires at various times by Hamas, are seen by some as further proof of the policy's efficacy.

See also


  1. Summary of Israeli Supreme Court Ruling on Targeted Killings Dec 14, 2006
  2. Stahl, Adam - "The Evolution of Israel Targeted Operations: Consequences of the Thabet Thabet Operation". Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 33,2 2010
  3. Stahl, Adam. "Questioning the Efficacy of Israeli Targeted Killings Against Hamas’ Religio-Military Command as a Counter-terrorism Tool."
  4. IAF kills one of Hamas' top five leaders in Gaza."
  5. For more information see B'Tselem Statistics, Objectives of a Targeted Killing
  6. “34 Years Since ‘Operation Spring of Youth.’” Israel Defense Forces. News-Today in the IDF-(Archives). 11 April 2007.
  7. Inbari, Pinchas. “Removing the Imaginary Hurdle.” Al-HaMishmar. 18 April 1988. Article found in “The Murder of Abu Jihad”. The Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol 17, No. 4, 1988. Page 155
  8. Greenberg, Joel. “Slaying Blended Technology and Guile.” New York Times. (Archives) 10 January 1996.
  9. Guardian “12 Dead in Attack on Hamas.” by Goldenberg, Suzanne. 23 July 2002.
  10. CNN, Shehade was high on Israel most-wanted list, July 23, 2002
  11. BBC
  12. Benn, Aluf and Harel, Amos. “Hamas Leader Surfaced Only to Worship.” Ha’Aretz Daily (Archives). 23 March 2004
  14. Nils Melzer, Targeted Killing in International Law (Oxford Monographs in International Law), Oxford University Press, USA (August 10, 2008)
  15. 15.0 15.1
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Efraim Inbar, Merkaz Besa le-meḥḳarim asṭraṭegiyim (2003) Democracies and small wars Taylor & Francis, SBN 0714684236 pp 144, 157
  17. Stahl, Adam. "Questioning the Efficacy of Israeli Targeted Killings Against Hamas’ Religio-Military Command as a Counter-terrorism Tool." op. cit.
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Do targeted killings work?", Daniel Byman, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, Volume 85, Number 2, p. 95-112
  20. 20.0 20.1 Guardian 'We're air force pilots, not mafia. We don't take revenge'
  22. 22.0 22.1 BBC. "Israel court backs targeted kills." Retrieved: 31 August 2009.
  23. Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), July 12, 2002
  24. Ha'aretz, Feb. 12, 2001.
  26. Podhoretz, John (July 24, 2002). "Hamas kills its own". Opinion (New York Post): pp. 29. Retrieved 2006-08-05. "The Fourth Geneva Convention goes into great and elaborate detail about how to assign fault when military activities take place in civilian areas. Those who are actually fighting the war are not considered "protected persons." Only civilians are granted the status of "protected persons" whose rights cannot be violated with impunity. The Fourth Geneva Convention convicts Hamas and Salah Shehada in one sentence. That sentence makes up the entirety of Part 3, Article 1, Section 28. It reads: "The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations." This sentence appears in the Fourth Geneva Convention precisely to deal with situations like the ones the Israelis faced." Note: The New York Post link to the article may be found here, but it requires a subscription.
  27. Schneider, Scott (November 28, 2003). "What the Geneva Protocols Really Say". Retrieved 2006-08-07. 
  28. Press Release SC/8063. Security Council's 4945th Meeting. Retrieved: 31 August 2009.
  29. Howard Friel, Richard A. Falk (2004) The record of the paper: how the New York Times misreports US foreign policy Verso, ISBN 1844670198 p 152
  30. UN Archives SC/8063 Security Council urged to condemn extrajudicial executions following Israel assassination of Hamas leader
  31. UN Treaties convention of for the Prevention and Repression of Terrorism
  32. Steven R. David (September 2002) (PDF). Fatal Choices: Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing. THE BEGIN-SADAT CENTER FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES; BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY. Retrieved 2006-08-01. 
  33. Luft, Gal (Winter 2003). "The Logic of Israel's Targeted Killing". The Middle East Quarterly X (1). Retrieved 2006-08-01. 
  34. Stahl, op. cit.
  35. Byman, op. cit.
  36. Stahl, op. cit. Pp 14-15
  37. Stahl, op. cit. Pp 14-15
  38. Frisch, Hillel. “Motivation or Capabilities? Israeli Counterterrorism against Palestinian Suicide Bombings and Violence.” The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. December 2006. Pp 5-6

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