On 2 January, 2024, an Israeli drone strike killed senior Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon. This audacious targeted killing raised concerns that the flames of war could potentially engulf more than just Palestine. Furthermore, the incident made many ponder on Israel’s targeted killing programme. A United Nations (UN) special report defined targeted killings as premeditated acts where lethal force is used by states, in peace or during armed conflict, to kill specific individuals outside their custody.
Israel’s history of targeted killings
Israel’s programme of target-killing individuals deemed dangerous to the state is engrained in its national security posture. Since nascency, Israel has used targeted killings to neutralise Palestinian leaders as well as Nazis. The state has leveraged slow poisons, snipers, attack helicopters, drones, F-16s, letter bombs and remote-controlled machine guns, among other means, to eliminate targets. Initially, the state was opposed to targeted killings on foreign soil. However, this policy shifted after the Munich Games in 1972, where Black September, a Palestinian militant group, killed 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team. In retaliation, Israel killed around two dozen Palestinian militants on European soil. Approved by then-President Golda Meir, this operation was labelled “Operation Wrath of God” and continued for decades. Ruthless in its nature, it aimed to eliminate everyone directly and indirectly involved in the Munich massacre. For example, Wael Zwaiter, a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) organiser and the cousin of Yasser Arafat was shot in the lobby of his apartment building in Rome in October 1972. The hit squad was composed of members from Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Later, in the late 1980s, the first Intifada broke loose in Israel. During this frenzied period, Israel initiated a series of targeted killings against certain Palestinians. Israeli agents would either perfidiously disguise themselves as Arabs to infiltrate and then kill their targets or use snipers to execute targets from afar. These operations rose in frequency in the mid-1990s. However, during this time, Israel would staunchly deny any sort of targeted killing programme. This denial saw a marked shift during the second Intifada when Hussain Abayat, a senior Palestinian militant commander, was killed outside Bethlehem. This targeted killing was acknowledged officially by the Israelis, and hence, it became the first country in the world to proclaim a targeted killing policy.
By November 2021, forty-seven people: “Had been had been targeted and eighty deaths had resulted.” One of the most infamous uses of targeted killing by Israel was when Salah Shehade, the then-leader of Hamas’s military wing, was killed using a one-tonne bomb dropped by an Israeli F-16 in Gaza. A one-tonne bomb dropped by an F-16 sounds indiscriminate enough, but along with Shehade, his wife, his 14-year-old daughter and 14 other civilians, including 11 children, reiterates this point to the nth degree. Furthermore, around 150 people were injured in this attack. Despite oscillating political will from one Israeli government to the other, this divisive programme of targeted killings has been pursued unabated. Due to the ignominious collateral damage in the shape of civilian lives, in 2003, 27 Israeli Air Force pilots sent a letter of protest to the then-Air Force commander, where they refused to continue to conduct attacks on targets within Palestinian population centres. They further reprimanded in the letter that the occupation was eating at the moral fabric of Israel.
Prominent killings and operations
The prolific Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas. His birthplace in Palestine was bulldozed by Israeli authorities along with 500 other Palestinian towns and villages. The sheikh was on Israel’s target list because of his alleged role in the killing of several Israelis. Ariel Sharon had openly called for his assassination, and after a failed F-16 assassination attempt in 2003, Israel managed to kill him using a helicopter gunship in 2004. The sheikh was killed when he was exiting a mosque after Fajr prayers. The attack that was condemned internationally killed the sheikh, his two bodyguards as well as nine bystanders – 15 others were injured. An overwhelming 200,000 Palestinians attended his funeral prayers.
A few years before this, in 1997, Israel failed to eliminate Khaled Meshaal, who would go on to become Hamas’s leader. It is alleged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally approved Meshaal’s killing. The attempt occurred in Amman, Jordan, when Meshaal was going to his office. Two Mossad agents administered a slow poison in Meshaal’s ear, but one of Meshaal’s bodyguards witnessed this and gave chase. He was able to capture the two agents after a fistfight. This incident was humiliating for Israel and Netanyahu, who had to face the wrath of an infuriated King Hussain of Jordan and Israel not only had to give the antidote to Meshaal but also had to release many Palestinian prisoners, including Sheikh Yassin. Meshaal came back from the dead. A very interesting book on this topic was also written titled Kill Khaled.
The Lillehammer Affair in 1973 was yet another discomfiture for the country. In pursuance of their vengeful target-killing operation after the Munich massacre, the Mossad gunned down Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter, in 1973 while he was walking with his pregnant wife. However, it was a case of mistaken identity as Bouchikhi was thought to be a Black September operative named Ali Hassan Salameh. The killing, which took place in Lillehammer, Norway, was a significant setback for Mossad’s reputation. Although Israel did not claim responsibility, the state compensated the deceased’s widow, daughter and son (from a previous marriage).
Apart from targeting Palestinians, the Israelis also have an acute interest in eliminating Iranian nuclear scientists. In 2010, Israel killed Massoud Ali-Mohammadi, an Iranian physics professor, with a remote-controlled bomb attached to a motorbike in Tehran. In 2010, Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer, was killed by a bomb attached to his car in Tehran. In 2011 and 2012, physicist Darioush Rezaei-Nejad and Professor Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan were killed by gunmen and a bomb, respectively. Lastly, in 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear programme, was killed. The day he was killed, he disregarded the advice of his security team and drove his black Nissan Teana instead of taking an armoured vehicle. He was assassinated by a remote-controlled machine gun assisted by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The human sniper who took the shot was using a computer and was 1,000 miles away from the target (not even in Iran). The AI was essential when it came to compensating for the lag/delay, the shake and the speed of the car.
There has been a myriad of such heinous target killings over the years, and while it will not be possible to provide an exhaustive list, the following are some other prominent target killings:
- Mustafa Hafaz, Egypt’s commander of intelligence in 1956.
- Mahmoud Hamshar, a Black September field commander in 1972.
- Abu Ali Mustafa, a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) commander, killed by a missile fired by an Israeli helicopter in 2001.
- Bashir Dabash and Zarees Alareer, Islamic Jihad’s heads of military arms in Gaza, killed by an IDF missile in 2004.
- Jamal Abu Samhadana, a Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) senior leader in 2006.
- Mazen Fuqaha, a Hamas senior commander, shot at point-blank range in 2017.
- Shireen Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist, shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in 2022.
Target killings in the ongoing Gaza war
Most of what will be based in this section is from the excellent investigation by +972 Magazine and Local Call titled “‘A mass assassination factory’: Inside Israel’s calculated bombing of Gaza.” The investigation uses information given by serving and retired members of Israel’s intelligence and security apparatus. In its blind anathema of Hamas, the world is witnessing Israel’s contemptuous bombing of residential buildings, hospitals, news stations and mosques, which have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. Promulgated by its propaganda arm, Israel’s official “excuse” for such barbarities is that Hamas uses human shields, that its tunnels are situated underneath such infrastructure, or Hamas hideouts are in such buildings. The state is also touting that it warns civilians before attacking civilian buildings and areas. However, this is all a blatant lie. According to the investigation, Israel is not only purposefully targeting civilian buildings but also knows in advance how many civilians are going to die in the strike. In one such tragic case, Israel green-lighted a targeted killing of a top Hamas commander, knowing that hundreds of Palestinian civilians would die, according to an Israeli source.
Another source asserted: “Nothing happens by accident. When a three-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target. We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.” This implacable revelation should make the world powers cower in shame.
Worsening the situation further is Israel’s reliance on an AI system called Habsora (The Gospel). This system “generates” targets almost automatically at an exponentially higher rate than possible. A former intelligence officer called this AI system a “mass assassination factory”. The system has empowered the army to target entire residential homes only to kill a solo Hamas member, even a junior one. However, there have been many instances, as seen on social media, where the army attacked homes where no Hamas member was present – massacring entire families. In other words, Israel is purposefully using inaccurate means to target Hamas members, leading to disproportionate civilian casualties – a war crime. This much was stated by the IDF’s own spokesperson: “The emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”
The Israeli sources in the investigation were cognizant that damaging civilians was the primary purpose of attacking Gaza. This is not a new policy and is true for past incursions into Gaza as well. There are cases from the ongoing conflict where Israel has purposefully destroyed high-rise buildings just for the sake of it without prior warning. In one case, a high-rise building collapsed on civilians inside. The Habsora has allowed for the generation of targets en masse, which is subsequently followed by IDF’s large-scale shelling to kill a few Hamas members. The Habsora is also the reason why Israel has still not run out of Palestinian targets. This paints a grim picture for the Palestinians: Israel’s inhuman machinations being aided by advanced draconian technology is something straight out of a dystopian nightmare.
Are targeted killings illegal?
This question needs quite a lot of careful consideration. While most objective scholars and jurists opine that target killings are illegal, the influence wielded by the US, Israel, and others has muddied the waters, leading to heated debates on a previously clear-cut topic. There are different aspects that one needs to be cognizant of – for example, did the targeted killing take place in an area of an armed conflict, or was it conducted in peacetime? Depending on the answer, the applicable law changes – International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is to be applied when an armed conflict is ongoing, while International Human Rights Law (IHRL) is always active (except when it is superseded by IHL during armed conflicts). Many other factors need to be understood, but this section would become an entity if I covered all the factors in detail.
Scholars and jurists can be found on both sides of the camp, legal and illegal. The side that defends target killings states that it is a legal form of self-defence that aims to reduce terrorism, while the opposing side argues that target killings are extrajudicial killings or assassinations that trample on due process. The two primary countries that conceitedly employ targeted killings, Israel and the US, have interpreted international laws in a manner that befits them, have blatantly overlooked such international laws, or have used their national laws and courts to gain “legal” backing and obfuscate matters further. In 2006, Israel’s High Court defended the military’s policy of target killings but stated that civilian considerations should be carefully examined and that killings should be avoided if less harmful means can be adopted. Primarily, it stated that such operations need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis to be deemed legal or illegal. The court did not declare all target killings a war crime as human rights groups had hoped.
That being said, how any court or body of law can consider what Israel is doing right now in Gaza as legal is sacrilegious. Deliberately targeting Palestinian militants when Israel is aware that a disproportionate number of civilians will die is entirely illegal. This targeted killing programme has become a programme in genocide and war crimes. In targeting Hamas, Israel has, at the point of writing this article, killed over 26,000 Palestinians, which includes more than 10,000 children and over 7,000 women. Furthermore, around 65,000 are wounded and 7,000 missing. Even before the current egregious war, Israel’s targeted killing track record was not too impressive. To this effect, B’Tselem, a human rights group, stated that from September 2000 to August 2011, 425 Palestinians died, of which 251 (59 per cent) were the targeted individuals while 174 (41 per cent) were civilian bystanders – hence an unsettling civilian-to-target ratio of 1:1.44.
Moreover, recently, Israel attacked and killed Hamas members in Lebanon where it attacked Lebanon when there was no conflict with the country, and Israel did not get permission for the attack. How is this legal? “Political assassinations on foreign soil are, by just about any read of international law, illegal. And by diplomatic convention, they are a cardinal sin—and potentially even an act of war.”
Conversely, how can the US conduct drone strikes on foreign soil across the globe to eliminate Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iranian generals such as Qasem Soleimani, etcetera? The US leverages its “law of 9/11” to justify its target-killing/drone campaigns globally. The US has, therefore, unilaterally permitted itself to use force against threats wherever they might be located, turning the entire world into a combat area. Since the US is in a state of perpetual armed conflict against different actors, it can disregard the sovereignty of any country and conduct targeted killings anywhere, such as its drone attack, which killed Ayman Al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Regarding this exact issue, former UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Professor Philip Alston emphatically states: “This expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defence threatens to destroy the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter, which is essential to the international rule of law. If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos.” Imagine China targeting terrorists in the UK using a drone. Would the world react then?
Powerful states alter, bend or completely uproot international law and conduct attacks wherever they please. International laws are made for weaker countries, while those who control the world, such as the US and Israel, have not had to abide by any laws. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and the ongoing genocide in Palestine make that much clearer.
Sarmad Ishfaq is the CEO of the think tank, Paradigm Shift. He is also an established writer whose work has been published by The Diplomat, Harvard, Open Democracy, GVS, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published in several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis’ Social Identities. Previously he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the ‘Top Graduate’.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.