Targeted Killings - a Retro Fashion Very Much in Vogue

From a weapon of last resort, it has become readily available, indicating a paralysis of thought.

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Targeted killings are nothing new to intelligence community in Israel. But over the years, at least until the 1970s, it was considered a last resort, a means to be used rarely and wisely.

There are two reasons for this caution, says a former senior official in the Mossad. "First, intelligence is not Murder, Inc., mafia-style. But more importantly, the policy of targeted killings is a double-edged sword. What you do to your opponents, they can do to you." For this reason especially, back in the `50s it was deemed better not to assassinate the leaders of enemy countries.

But there was a possibility of breaching this rule during preparations for the Sinai Campaign in October 1956. In coordinating battle operations between the IDF Intelligence Corps and British and French intelligence, the possibility was brought up of assassinating Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The initiative, which came mainly from the British, was never implemented, and in fact never reached a practical stage of planning.

There have, however, been cases where Israeli intelligence did not hesitate, with the approval and direction of the political echelon, to carry out targeted killings, mainly of those considered "valuable" targets" - those whose death would seriously impair the operational capabilities of the enemy.

Book bombs

On July 11, 1956, the IDF intelligence chief Major General Yehoshafat Harkabi put forward a plan to assassinate Colonel Mustafa Hafez, Egyptian commander of military intelligence in the Gaza Strip and the man responsible for sending the fedayeen from Gaza to Israel. He was killed by means of an explosive device hidden in a book, which was given to him by an Egyptian double agent. The agent, who did not know what he was carrying, was blinded in the blast.

Another book bomb was sent the next day via the East Jerusalem post office to Colonel Salah Mustafa, the Egyptian military attache in Amman, who had dispatched infiltrators via the West Bank to Israel. He opened the package and was killed in the blast.

The use of mail bombs became a central tool in the `60s, especially in assassinating German (former Nazi) scientists who were involved in developing advanced weapons in Egypt. They were previously warned not to take part in weapons development, via a scare campaign directed by then Mossad chief Isser Harel. When they did not desist, they became targets.

The Mossad at that time did not have an operational arm to speak of; Harel drafted operational units from the Shin Bet, headed at that time by Zvi Malhin and Rafi Eitan. They were assisted by another small operational unit of the Mossad, headed by Yitzhak Shamir. In Operation Damocles, which began in August 1962, and lasted for a few months, Israeli intelligence operatives assassinated Dr. Heinz Krug, director of an Egyptian dummy company known as Antra, operating out of Munich, which was involved in a building missiles in Egypt. Another assassination attempt, against Dr. Hans Kleiwachter, failed due to a weapon malfunction.

Other mail bombs were sent by means of an Israeli agent operating in Egypt, Wolfgang Luntz, known as "the horseback spy."

The killing of the German scientists only ceased when then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, concerned that the operation would harm relations with Germany, called a halt to them. Harel was forced to resign and his successor, Meir Amit, stated that his predecessor had exaggerated the danger of Egypt's missile and unconventional weapons projects.

Logic, not emotion

In the years that followed, Amit turned to building a modern organization that operated on logic, not emotion, and that would no longer carry out dangerous operations whose contribution to security was minuscule, if any. The organization under Amit was to focus on collecting information and creating collegial relationships with intelligence organizations throughout the world. During those years, Israeli intelligence did not involve itself in targeted killings.

The turning point that brought targeted killings back was the Six-Day War. After the war, the fight against Palestinian terror, both in the territories and beyond the borders of Israel, moved targeted killings up the ladder of Israeli intelligence priorities. But the watershed was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. Then prime minister Golda Meir ordered the head of the Mossad at the time, Zvi Zamir, to embark upon a campaign of targeted killings of anyone directly or indirectly connected with the athletes' murder.

Zamir delegated the operation to Mike Harari, head of the Caesarea unit, the Mossad's central operational group.

It was the first time in the history of Israeli intelligence that it had been directed to initiate a "project" - not a one-time killing but a systematic elimination against dozens of people.

A pattern was set in motion at that time that became the basis for similar operations to this day. Intelligence compiled a list of targets; today it is known as a "bank." A special, limited committee known as the "X Committee" had the authority to approve Mossad requests to eliminate a person on the list. The X Committee would consult the attorney general, who served as a one-man court, sentencing the suspect to death.

That was also the first time that the motive for the assassination was revenge. Although it was couched in lofty terms, such as "deterrence," and "future prevention" of terror, it was clear that the urge to avenge the deaths of Israelis was the main consideration for the decision.

The intelligence community had no small number of opponents to the decision, among other reasons, for operational considerations - if we kill them, they will kill us. And in fact, Palestinian terrorists did wound Shin Bet operative Zadok Ofir in Brussels and killed his friend Baruch Cohen in Madrid in 1973. There were others who opposed the decision in principle: Intelligence should not be involved in a dirty, Mafia-like war.

Lillehammer blow

The systematic assassination campaign suffered a near fatal blow in July 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway, when a Mossad gunman, out to eliminate Ali Hassan Salameh, who was believed to be the brains of Black September, the organization that carried out the Munich murders, mistakenly shot and killed a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Boushiki.

The failure in Norway did not end targeted assassinations entirely; it omly slowed them down. The failure brought several questions into sharp relief: Are targeted killings worthwhile? And if so, who should the targets be? Although clear answers have yet to be formulated, a kind of silent understanding has been reached whereby targeted killings are permissible, in certain circumstances, but the use of this weapon must be cautious, wise and rare.

Only the chiefs of the terror organizations should be targeted, those whose deaths will result in a serious impairment of the organization's operational capabilities. Responsibility should not be made public for such actions that are taken, so that Israel does not appear to be using terror itself, and so that its relations with other countries are not damaged, as they were with Norway and with Jordan after the attempt to assassinate Hammas leader Khaled Meshal in 1997.

The subcommittee for intelligence and security services of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee investigated the attempted assassination of Meshal, and in March 1998, publiced an unprecedented statement in which it said, among other things that, "for many years the governments of Israel have not crystallized policies in the war against terror organizations that are based on fundamental thought processes and continuity." The statement also said that "the lack of well-organized policies has led to the component of response to terror attacks carrying extensive and damaging weight."

The policy to get rid of terrorist organizational leaders was behind the attempts to assassinate Wadia Hadad, among other methods by sending him poisoned envelopes. Hadad, who had broken off in the `70s from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and established his own organization, was responsible for several terror operations, among them the hijacking of the Air France plane to Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. The same policy was also behind the assassination, in April 1973, of three Fatah leaders in Beirut.

The intelligence community also assumes that it is possible, even desirable, to hit leaders of small organizations, those that are no more than "one-man operations." This approach was behind one success and one failure. Zuheir Mohsein, the leader of the pro-Syrian a-Saika, died in mysterious circumstances on the French Riviera in 1979; his death spelled the end of his organization.

This was not the case when Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad, was hit. He was killed in October 1995, on the assumption that killing him would put an end to the capabilities of his small organization, among other reasons because his presumed successor, Abdullah Ramadan Shalah, was considered ineffectual and lacking leadership abilities.

Those assumptions were proved wrong. Shalah proved to be a capable leader, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza produced some of the worst suicide bombings of recent years.

Cost-benefit ratio

The most important element that is always taken into consideration in discussions between the intelligence and security echelons and the political echelon, is the cost-benefit ratio. If the assassination leads to a severe response on the part of the terror organizations, then it was a losing proposition.

This consideration was either apparently forgotten when it came to the targeted killing of the director- general of Hezbollah, Abbas Moussawi, in southern Lebanon in 1992, or those who made the decision, first and foremost the prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, were mistaken in their assumptions. Hezbollah response was stinging: two car bombs in Buenos Aires, against the buildings housing the Israeli Embassy and the Jewish community organization, in which more than 100 people were killed and many were injured.

Another dilemma facing decision-makers in Israel is the issue of the successor to the target terrorist leader. Will he not be worse and more dangerous than his predecessor? In other words, isn't it better to deal with the devil you know?

With hindsight, there is no doubt that many in the intelligence community believe that the 1988 decision to hit Halil el-Wazir, Arafat's deputy, also known as Abu Jihad, was a mistake. Abu Jihad was responsible for managing the first intifada, which began spontaneously at the local level, and the hope that his death would put an end to the violence in the territories turned out to be in vain. Looking back, it is clear to many that his death left Arafat alone at the leadership level of the PLO, without the counsel of a talented and pragmatic strategist.

Always, even at the height of assassination wars, there was a kind of silent agreement on both sides not to hit "national" leaders. Here and there, exceptions cropped up, like the failed attempt of the PFLP to kill David Ben-Gurion during a visit to Scandinavia in the `60s, or the plan to kill Yasser Arafat by means of a sharpshooter or aerial bombardment in Lebanon in 1982.

But this understanding, like so many others, shattered in the face of the wave of violence of the second intifada. The Shin Bet killed PFLP leader, Abu Ali Mustafa and the PFLP retaliated by killing Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.

The most outstanding aspect of this issue in recent years is that all the basic assumptions concerning the use of targeted killings have been forgotten or abandoned. From a weapon of last resort, it has become the most available of weapons; from wise and cautious use, its use is now widespread and wholesale.

This change has hard hit another assumption, essentially about psychology: the mystery that surrounded previous assassinations cast fear into the hearts of the enemy by their very rarity and sophistication. That mystery dissipates the moment the act becomes a usual one. This, more than anything else, shows the long road the IDF and the intelligence and security forces have traveled from daring and creativity to paralysis of thought.



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