The Israeli airstrike that targeted Hamas’s head of military operations, Ahmed Jabari, seems to mark a decided return to Israel’s past policy of targeted killing. And wisely so.
For more than a decade Israel has overtly used targeted killing as an effective tool in its arsenal against terror. Indeed, according to a report issued by the United Nations, targeted killing is a term that Israel itself made famous when it described its policy of eliminating terrorists during the massive upsurge of terrorist violence emanating from Arab controlled cities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip between 2000 and 2002. Israel’s use of targeted killing was so devastating in fact that in a 2002 meeting with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian negotiators Abu Ala, Abu Mazen, and Mohammad Rashid insisted that Israel must, first and foremost, halt its “eliminations” before Palestinians would agree to negotiate.
The United States has also relied heavily on targeted killing because it quickly proved to be a highly effective measure. Just a few days after the 9/11 attacks, the United States Congress signed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The act authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against those involved in the 9/11 attacks. Since its inception, AUMF has served as a fundamental pillar of the global war on terror conducted by the United States, providing, among other things, the legal basis for drone attacks and covert assassination missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now, under President Barack Obama, several additional countries.
For democracies in general, and Israel in particular, targeted killing is a trump card against terrorism for four main reasons.
First, targeted killing is a response that is both just and proportionate. It dispatches appropriate justice to those precisely responsible for acts of unimaginable cruelty.
Second, targeted killing is a deterrent against prospective terrorist activity. Nobody, not even a prospective terrorist, wishes to be awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of a helicopter gunship missile crashing through his bedroom window.
Third, targeted killing is a deterrent against ongoing terrorist activity because it forces terrorists to focus more on avoiding death than on plotting future terrorist activities. In Afghanistan, for example, American cruise missiles and drone attacks have decimated al-Qaeda and fractured its leadership. What was once a potent, hierarchical operation there has been reduced to roving bands of militants relegated to the mountains and valleys of Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border, remote areas in Yemen along the Saudi border, and the wastelands of African Sahara and the Islamic Maghreb. They have been forced into these relative wastelands in order to avoid U.S. targeting.
Fourth, targeted killing is quicker, more focused, less expensive, and less devastating than a conventional military campaign. Additionally, they can be, and often are, called off at the last minute when a target enters a zone which yields a high potential risk of collateral damage. Furthermore, because such attacks are usually executed with no collateral damage, the media spotlight is therefore promptly cast on the “victim” and not on any surrounding activity or destruction. Follow-up reporting will usually then confirm the true nature of the victim: a terrorist who met his just end as a response to his barbaric acts.
Targeted killing has been authorized by several governments. The American public approves of it as well. According to a 2012 poll conducted by the Washington Post, a supermajority of Americans — eighty-three percent — support the government’s use of “unmanned, ‘drone’ aircraft attacks against terrorist suspects overseas.” Arguably, America’s support of targeted killing goes hand-in-hand with its efficacy as a counter-terrorism measure.
Should the barrage of rocket fire by Hamas continue, Israel will likely be forced to continue its policy of targeted killing. Until a peaceful solution can be attained, the targeted killing of terrorists will remain Israel’s trump card in the battle against Hamas.