Ido Rosenzweig

IDF’s Targeting Principle: Justice, Not Vengeance

Troops from the 679th Yiftach Armored Brigade operate in central Gaza, June 2024 (IDF Spokesperson)
Troops from the 679th Yiftach Armored Brigade operate in central Gaza, June 2024 (IDF Spokesperson)

It was reported recently that the IDF avoids eliminating participants in the massacre on October 7th who are not members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, but rather independent activists who operated only on that day and currently do not pose a specific threat.

This statement was met with astonishment, as it suggested that the military prosecution prevents the IDF from avenging the perpetrators of the massacre on this basis. Minister Shikli went further, demanding the IDF spokesperson issue a clarification regarding this policy, and former minister Chaim Ramon labeled it “a manifestly illegal order.”

I will start by saying that the IDF does not engage in revenge, and its acronym does not stand for “Israel Revenge Forces” but rather “Israel Defense Forces.” The IDF is a legitimate military that operates and conducts itself according to Israeli law, IDF orders, and within the framework of international humanitarian law. None of these frameworks allow killing a person out of revenge.

The laws of war distinguish between legitimate targets for direct attack and those that must not be directly attacked. Legitimate attacks on people are against combatants or civilians taking a direct part in hostilities. The definition of who constitutes a civilian taking a direct part in hostilities is complex and includes various questions about its framework.

For example, one of the critical questions regarding members of a non-state organization like Hamas is distinguishing between its military and civilian or political wings. Most armies, if not all, agree that activity in the civilian wing of the organization does not, by itself, constitute direct participation in hostilities, and therefore, activists in this wing are not legitimate targets for attack without additional direct activity.

Another aspect of this distinction relates to the duration of the direct action. That is, a person who is not a member of Hamas’ military wing but takes a direct part in hostilities loses the protections afforded to civilians under the laws of war from direct attack and becomes a legitimate target for the duration of their direct participation in hostilities. This means that when this person ceases to take direct part in hostilities, they are no longer a legitimate target for direct attack.

Using the example that sparked public outrage – a person not belonging to the military wing of Hamas (or Islamic Jihad) who actively participated in the attacks and abductions on October 7th was undoubtedly a legitimate target on that day and at that time. However, once they ceased this terrorist activity and no longer take a direct part in hostilities against Israel and the IDF, they no longer constitute a legitimate target for attack. If Israeli forces identify them, the only legal way to kill them in a targeted killing is if they resume direct participation in hostilities.

Targeted killing is a preventive measure, not a tool for revenge. Directly attacking a civilian who is not currently taking a direct part in hostilities constitutes a severe violation of the laws of war and a war crime. This does not mean that nothing can be done against them – they can certainly be captured and brought to criminal trial for their involvement in the acts.

It can be argued that Israel should be doubly careful about legal combat because it is currently under the scrutiny of the international community, especially the International Criminal Court. The issue of arrest warrants against the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister could become even more complicated if it turns out that the IDF is deliberately attacking civilians who are not directly participating in hostilities. In my opinion, the basis is different – Israel is obligated to act this way because it is the right and lawful way. Israel’s advantage and strength come from being a strong democracy that operates according to the rule of law and the international commitments it has undertaken and believes in.

Therefore, the Chief Military Advocate General and the Attorney General would do well to publish a clarification that the directive in the field is no different from the order: it is permissible to attack only those who constitute a legitimate military target at the time of the attack.

The State of Israel should do everything to ensure that those responsible for the atrocities of October 7th pay the price. But in a law-abiding state, “doing everything” means everything the law allows, not everything the urge for revenge demands. Anyone who holds that the IDF is the most moral army in the world must demand that this is also implemented in the field and stop calling for illegal acts of revenge.

About the Author
Dr. Ido Rosenzweig is the co-founder and chairman of ALMA - Association for the Promotion of International Humanitarian Law, and the Director of Research (Terrorism, Belligerency, and cyber) at the Minerva Center for the Rule of Law under Extreme Conditions in the University of Haifa [Photo by Flash90]
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