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Israel's policy of targeted assassinations and shifting the focus of blame

Israel's practice of targeted assassinations against Palestinians, an evolution of 'focused foiling' or 'liquidations policy' by Israel, remains a contentious issue in the discourse on human rights and international human rights law.

Perceived in a wider context, it is possible to discern a trend in the global media which fails to address assassinations as a lethal operation carried out by Israeli intelligence and the Israeli Defence Forces. A comprehensive look at Israel's colonial occupation of Palestine, its disregard for international law and distortion of Palestinian armed resistance shows how the global media has served Israel's deception campaign. By endorsing the occupier's rhetoric, the media has aided in shifting the discourse of Palestinian resistance to an image of terrorism, endangering the reality of history under colonial occupation and failing to discuss the assassinations as an operative of state terror.


The absence of a specific reference to targeted assassinations in the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Conventions has made it possible for Israel to achieve immunity for its actions and shift the discourse from assassination to elimination of security threats. Israel's defence of targeted assassinations fuels speculation about Palestinian terrorist in an imprecise context. The scene for armed resistance was set by Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. Intelligence agency Shin Bet dismisses claims of favouring assassination over apprehending suspects. However, assassinations are recommended when there is difficulty in arresting the suspect and Israeli law has not prohibited the practice, preferring to rely on a supposed analysis of each case to determine illegality.

Another odd assertion aimed at alienating people from the reality of targeted assassinations is Israel's claim that 'focused foiling' is carried out with the intention of protecting Israeli citizens; hence the death of the targeted person can be classified as collateral damage. The utility of prevention has, in recent years and since the Second Intifada, been directed against Hamas leaders whose advocacy in favour of armed resistance has been labelled 'terrorist'. Dr Boaz Ganor, from Israel's Institute of Counter Terrorism (ICT) describes Israel as a nation fighting against terrorism attacks with the aim of 'at least neutralising the terrorist'. Such an affirmation has been promoted by Israel's allies within the international community, as well as by corporate media, whose allegiances seem to lie within the confines of Israel's misrepresentation of history.

Hamas has never denied its commitment to armed resistance. Throughout the years, militancy fluctuated between escalations and lulls in attacks, according to the evolution of Israel's illegal occupation. As seen during the Oslo period, whilst Hamas openly denounced the Accords as flouting UN resolutions, the Palestinian Authority (PA) settled for further negotiations and a refusal to collaborate with Hamas. The differences in opinion were evident. Whilst the PA accepted Israel's right to exist, effectively contradicting the pre-1948 agreements, Hamas sought to create a strategy which would allow it to resist the Israeli occupation through armed struggle, launch itself into direct confrontation with the PA and amass social and political support for its aims. Following Palestinian suicide bombings in retaliation for the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians by a Jewish settler, Israel focused on achieving military triumphs against the Hamas leadership and consolidating its occupation by seeking to eliminate Palestinians' possibility for armed resistance.

The Second Intifada was characterised by an implementation of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders. Sheikh Saleh Shehada, head of Hamas' military wing, was killed on July 23, 2002 by IDF forces. The bomb dropped on his apartment also resulted in the deaths of his wife and other civilians in the densely populated area of Al-Daraj. Ismail Abu Shanab was killed on August 31, 2003, burnt to death when 5 missiles were fired into his car. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated on March 22, 2004, struck by a rocket after emerging from a mosque. Dr Abdul Aziz Al Rantisti, Yassin's successor, was killed by a missile fired upon his car after a visit to his family. Civilian casualties were also reported, despite Israel's insistence upon precision targeting. When this argument failed to impress, Israel's subsequent rhetoric alleged that Hamas used civilians as human shields.

On 11 December, 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a judgment regarding the practice of targeted killings after petitions by the Public Committee against Torture in Israel and the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment insisted that the policy of targeted killings in illegal and violates international law. However, the Court ruled that 'preventative strikes upon terrorists in the area which cause their deaths are a necessary means from a military standpoint'. It also describes Israel as a democracy 'fighting 'with one hand tied behind her back … democracy has the upper hand, since preserving the rule of law and recognition of individual liberties constitute an important component of her security stance.' Whilst adding that targeted assassinations should not be carried out when there is a possibility of arrest, as well as the importance of applying the proportionality principle to reduce civilian deaths, the Court fails to take a decisive stance in declaring the practice to be against international law, contending the 'legality of each individual' with reference to the target.

What is missing from the legal discourse is Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine. The legal discussion takes place within a framework of a presumably democratic state, without any mention of its belligerent occupation, illegal blockades, forced eviction and displacement, administrative detention, and the siege on Gaza. Israeli law has clearly endorsed practices which are contrary to international law, including torture and extrajudicial killings, and provides immunity for anyone indulging in such practices. Indeed, the notion of guilt with regard to illegality does not feature in Israel's legal rhetoric, unless it is implied to the people it has colonised and oppressed for decades. On the contrary, justice encompasses a spectrum consisting of the Israeli state and its dynamics of obstructing Palestinian self-determination – ambivalence sought within retaliation against Palestinian resistance.

The recent targeted assassination of Ahmed Al Jabari was described as 'a brilliant operation', paving the way for Operation Pillar of Defence, described by Israel as a necessity to disrupt Hamas' military capabilities and reduce rocket attacks against Israel's civilian population. Al Jabari's assassination was legitimised by Shin Bet as necessary 'because of decade long terrorist activity'. In the aftermath of the ceasefire brokered by Egypt, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visited Gaza, prompting blatant remarks about the missed opportunity to assassinate Meshaal during his stay. Right-wing candidate in the forthcoming elections, Naftali Bennet, declared that the State of Israel ought to have liquidated him, 'because he deserves to die'. Shaul Mofaz from the Kadima party declared, 'We should have taken advantage of the opportunity to slice off the head of the serpent'. Western leaders endorsed Israel's right to defend itself 'against terrorism', conveniently ignoring the historical processes which led to Israel's obsession with security – namely, the oppression of Palestinians under colonial rule.

Israel is portrayed as having limitations in providing security for its citizens. By pitting self-defence against reprisal, Israel, aided by selective reporting from global media, has churned a stereotype of Hamas constituting an on-going threat, and since it is not a state-actor, armed resistance is unlawful. Israel's failure to recognise Hamas as an elected party facilitates its disregard of international law. However, dismantling Israeli fallacies would provide a more authentic context to the debate – perceiving and dealing with Israel as a belligerent occupier which endorsed and legalised apartheid practices would shift the discourse of terror from the colonised to the coloniser.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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