Israel Has No Clear Policy on Targeted Killings – and Never Has

Israel has never decided if such killings are effective, or just an emotional reaction. The spectrum between revenge and rational judgment is murky

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Hamas political leader Yahya Sinwar, last year.
Hamas political leader Yahya Sinwar, last year.Credit: HATEM RAWAGH / AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The bad news is that the debate in Israel over targeted killings is Pavlovian. Every time a terrorist attack occurs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the conversation about whether to restart the policy of targeted killing and “cut off the head of the snake” reawakens. Now it is the turn of Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The good news is that defense officials have come to their senses quickly and are distancing themselves such calls.

Israel has never decided whether the policy of targeted killings is effective – if it serves an appropriate end or if the result of a desire for revenge. The clearest expression of this can be seen in the pursuit of Palestinian terrorists after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich.

Israel killed six Fatah militants in the period between that massacre, in September 1972, and the Mossad’s resounding failure in Lillehammer, Norway in July 1973, when agents killed Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchikhi, after they mistakenly identified him as Ali Hassan Salameh – one of the planners of the murders and an aide to Yasser. Mike Harari, the head of operations for the Mossad at the time, used his agents – including members of the Kidon clandestine unit – in operations in Rome, Paris, Nicosia, Athens and elsewhere.

As a result of this chain of killings, journalists, writers and filmmakers cultivated a myth according to which then-Prime Minister Golda Meir decided to exact revenge on all those involved in the murder of the athletes. A codename was even invented for this myth: Operation Wrath of God.

Ahmed Bouchiki from Morocco was killed on an open street at Lillehammer in 1973. Credit: NTB SCANPIX MAG via AFP

But it simply wasn’t true. After Steven Spielberg’s poor film “Munich” (which was based on a book written by Juval Aviv, an Israeli American who worked as a taxi driver in Brooklyn and has been exposed as a conman and liar) was released in 2005, former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir broke his silence. In an interview with me for Haaretz, he countered this legend and said the killings were meant to erode the terror organizations’ capabilities – their collaborators, safe house, weapons stores – and to disrupt plans for future terror attacks, not revenge. Until the Lillehammer affair, none of those killed in the Mossad operations during this period was involved in the planning, preparations or execution of the murders in Munich.

The dichotomy between the urge for revenge and cool, rational judgment is a thread that has through the entire Israeli war against terrorism since the very first targeted killing carried out by Israeli intelligence. This came in 1955, when an Egyptian intelligence agent in the Gaza Strip, was deceived by Israel Defense Forces Unit 504, part of Military Intelligence. He was given a package containing explosives that killed the commander of Egyptian military intelligence in the Gaza Strip, Col. Mustafa Hafez – who was responsible for sending fedayeen, guerilla fighters, from Gaza into Israel.

As far as it is possible to verify the facts, from 1955 until the Six-Day War in 1967, only one other such operation took place. It happened in 1965, when Mossad officers killed Herberts Cukurs, a Latvian SS general involved in mass murder during the Holocaust, in a house in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. A legend surrounds this story, too, in which the Mossad made the pursuit of Nazi war criminals an important priority in the 1960s and 1970s. Mossad documents prove exactly the opposite: This mission had very low priority – and the fact is that to this day, Cukurs was the sole Nazi war criminal ever killed by the Mossad.

After 1967, too, and in spite of the increase in terrorism, the use of targeted killings was extremely limited and was done sparingly. During the First Lebanon War in 1982, there were a few failed attempts to kill Yasser Arafat, mostly using the air force. When the Palestine Liberation Organization was expelled from Beirut to Tunis, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin rejected a proposal by Col. Meir Dagan – later the head of the Mossad – to have a sniper kill Arafat. The first intifada, which broke out in December 1987, did not alter Israel’s approach. The military was the main tool used against the Palestinian uprising.

PLO leader Yasser Arafat, left, and King Hussein of Jordan, right, listen to Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser, center, at the Nile Hilton Hotel, Cairo, 1970.Credit: AP

The major turning point came with the second intifada, when Ariel Sharon’s government turned targeted killings into an important, even central, tool, at the recommendation of then-Shin Bet security service head Avi Dichter. The targeted killings began wholesale after that, and were also made possible, perhaps primarily, by technological progress that allowed the integrated use of human intelligence, signals intelligence, and with strikes by drones and planes. Nonetheless, at the height of the second intifada, Sharon rejected the proposal of then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and the senior security officials to kill Arafat while he was under siege in his compound in Ramallah.

In the crosshairs

Based on history and past precedents, it’s possible to say that Israel had three main types of targets for targeted killings:

1. Nazi war criminals – but Israel did not make any great effort to kill them.

2. Palestinian and Arab terrorists.

3. Scientists serving Israel’s enemies. This category included German scientists who worked on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s advanced weapons program; an Egyptian scientist; the Canadian engineer Gerald Bull, who worked for Saddam Hussein’s unconventional weapons program; as well as Iranian scientists.

Herberts Cukurs, war criminal killed by the Mossad in 1965.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Israel was always very careful not to harm leaders and heads of state. The reason was utilitarian, not moral. The assumption was that if Israel began attacking politicians and statesmen, then its own leadership would be seen legitimate targets, including by the international community.

The possibility of killing political leaders was considered only twice in Israel’s history: In 1956, at the end of the Sinai Campaign, when Avraham Dar, an officer in Unit 504, proposed killing Nasser – but this was immediately taken off the table.

In 1992, the possibility of killing Saddam Hussein was also considered. The elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit even prepared for the operation, but one of its training exercises ended with the deaths of five soldiers in what became known as the Tze'elim Bet disaster. I note that I have reason to assume that even had the exercise ended successfully, it is highly unlikely that the prime minister would have approved the operation, which was the initiative of then-Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, who had the support of the General Staff.

Lacking a conceptual model

The debate over the targeted killings is mostly conducted in secret. Only rarely does it spill over into the public eye and draw attention. Meanwhile, does Israel have an appropriate conceptual model about the subject as part of its security doctrine, about when and who is to be targeted, if at all? The answer is no.

The last attempt to create a doctrine on targeted killings came in 1997, after the failed attempt on the life of Khaled Meshal, then head of Hamas’ political bureau, in Amman. After the diplomatic crisis that erupted between Israel and Jordan, Israel was forced to save Meshal’s life and release Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, in return for the release of the Mossad officers.

Gerald Bull in 1964.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The subcommittee for intelligence and the security services in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee investigated the attempted assassination of Meshal. Its members included lawmakers Ori Orr, Yossi Sarid, Benny Begin and Uzi Landau. Their report remained classified. But the committee released a concluding statement that stated: “For many years the governments of Israel have not formulated policies in the war against terror organizations that are based on thorough calculations and a continuous and consistent logical approach.”

The statement also said that “given the lack of well-organized policies for counter-terrorism activity, the element of responding to terror attacks has assumed extensive and harmful weight.” It seems that these grave words from a quarter-century ago are still valid – maybe even more than at the time.

Nonetheless, based on historical precedent, it seems that it is still possible to reach a few conclusions and insights:

1. Targeted killing must be the last resort, when no other option exists.

2. The use of targeted killings must be measured, and conducted based on careful judgment and an in-depth examination, and not an impulsive emotional response.

Khaled Meshal in 2013.Credit: AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA

3. A targeted killing is a process with an expiration date. Every person who is killed has a replacement, who will be found sooner or later – and often this person is even more capable and dangerous than his predecessor. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, is the best example of this. His predecessor as director-general of Hezbollah, Abbas Musawi, was killed by a missile fired from a helicopter in 1992. Musawi caused much less damage to Israel than his successor. Another example is Ahmad Jabari, who was considered to be the chief of staff of Hamas until he was killed as part of the opening blow of Operation Pillar of Cloud in the Gaza Strip in 2012. The lessons from Jabari’s killing are still very relevant today when it comes to the question of Sinwar.

4. Targeted killings can be effective when it comes to a small terrorist group, in which killing the leader can paralyze operations. The best examples of this are the Mossad’s killing of Zuheir Mohsen, the leader of the pro-Syrian al-Saiqa organization, who died under mysterious circumstances on the French Riviera in 1979 and whose death spelled the end of his organization.

An opposite example is the case of Fathi Shiqaqi, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who was killed in Malta in October 1995. The organizational paralysis did last for a few years, but Islamic Jihad was resurrected and grew in strength, and is now a strong force in the Gaza Strip.

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