Attention: Dan Halutz

When Israel began using `targeted killings' in its war on Palestinian terror, it claimed moral superiority over its enemies.

The driver of a speeding train notices five people on the tracks. He cannot stop the train, but he can divert it to a different track, on which only one man is standing. The driver would be acting morally by switching the train to the second track, even though this would cause him to run over the man standing on it, because his motive is moral: He wants to save the five pedestrians standing on the first track. Yet it would be immoral to knowingly kill a healthy man in order to obtain organs from his body that are capable of curing five other people.

The above distinction has its roots in Christian philosophy, and was born in response to ethical dilemmas that arise in the medical profession. Even though Orthodox Christianity forbids abortions, it permits the excision of a womb containing a fetus in order to save the life of the pregnant woman. The logic that guides this approach is that the motive in the latter instance is saving the woman's life. Killing the fetus is not the goal, even though it is a known consequence.

In their discussions of this issue, philosophers use the term "double effect," meaning an action with two results - one good and one bad. The relevant legal term is "the law of expectations": You foresee that your action will have a negative consequence, even though this is not your intent. The relevant moral criteria are that the value of the positive outcome outweigh that of the attendant negative outcome, and that the negative outcome not be a means of obtaining the positive outcome, but merely an unavoidable side effect.

When Israel began using "targeted killings" in its war on Palestinian terror, it claimed moral superiority over its enemies: While they deliberately murdered innocent Israelis, Israel aimed its weapons solely at known terrorists. By implication, Israel was claiming that when it sends a plane to attack a "ticking bomb," this is like attacking a military installation located near a residential neighborhood. Wartime ethics accept a situation in which an attack on a military target causes casualties among the surrounding civilian population.

In retrospect, however, it is possible to wonder whether the moral superiority that Israel claims is really valid. Is liquidating a person, a terrorist, without trial, like destroying a military base? Does the distinction that Israel made between knowing in advance that a targeted killing would hurt innocent bystanders and declaring that this was not its intention render it ethically clean? The difference between its behavior and that of the terrorist organizations is somewhat murky: Like them, Israel is also trying to break the enemy; like them, it also justifies its actions with nice-sounding rationales ("self-defense" versus "fighting against occupation").

But Israel had one point in its favor - it could claim that, even though the results were similar, its considerations were different than those of the terrorist commanders: It makes a supreme effort to minimize harm to innocent Palestinians, whereas they deliberately aim their murderous attacks at the Israeli public.

Unfortunately, statistics on the results of Israel's targeted killing policy do not give it a clear moral edge. From November 2000 to April 2003, Israel conducted 175 targeted killings that killed 235 people and wounded 310. Of those killed, only 156 were defined as the targets of the strikes; of those wounded, only five were so defined. This result raises the question of whether Israel made sufficient efforts and took sufficient risks to prevent harm to innocent Palestinians. Moreover, official rhetoric demonstrated apathy to the tragic results: Israel's official spokesman announced that he slept well at night after Palestinian civilians are hit, and that the only thing he felt was "a slight bump to the wing of the plane as a result of dropping the bomb."

For the attention of Dan Halutz, who today becomes the new chief of staff.