From "The Case For Israel", by Alan Dershowitz:
Is Targeted Assassination of Terrorist Leaders Unlawful?
The Israeli policy of targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is murder prohibited by international law.
"Assassinations have been part of Israel's security policy for many years.
Israel is the only democratic country which regards such measures as a legitimate course of action. This policy is patently illegal, according to both Israeli and international law, a policy whose implementation involves a high risk of hurting bystanders and from which there is no turning back even if errors are uncovered after the fact. Israel must cease assassinating Palestinians immediately." (Yael Stein of the Israeli human rights organization B'Tseleml)
Targeting the military leaders of an enemy during hostilities is perfectly proper under the laws of war, which is what Israel-as well as the United States and other democracies-has done.
In one sense, the polar opposite of collective punishment is targeted assassination. This tactic seeks to prevent future terrorism by incapacitating
those who are planning to carry it out but are beyond the reach of other methods of incapacitation, such as arrest. Tyrannical regimes have widely employed an extreme form of targeted assassination against perceived enemies at home and abroad. Hitler had his rivals murdered with impunity. Stalin took his campaign of targeted assassination around the world, even to Mexico, where his operatives murdered Leon Trotsky.
The United States has certainly tried to assassinate foreign leaders over the years. Its hit list has included Fidel Castro, as well as Patrice Lumumba, Muammar el-Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein. Although the United States did not directly murder Salvador Allende or Ngo Dinh Diem, it certainly played an active role in helping others to dispatch them.
Recently, it again targeted Saddam Hussein, his children, and his generals, and has put bounties on the heads of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar. Other democratic nations have also given their agents a "license to kill" in extreme situations.
Targeted assassination, like collective punishment, operates along a continuum. At the hard end is the widespread targeting of all perceived political opponents, as Hitler and Stalin practiced it. At the soft end is what the United States and Israel current)y do: targeting specific terrorist leaders who are actively involved in planning or coordinating terrorist attacks and who cannot be arrested. An example of such a target was Yehiya Ayash, I known as "the Engineer," the chief bomb maker for Hamas, whom Israeli I' agents killed in January 1996 by placing explosives in his mobile phone.
Another example was the April 2003 Israeli rocket attack on a car that killed the leader ofIslamic Jihad, Mahroud Zatme. His organization issued a statement "condemning the killing" but boasting that "the martyr was the engineer of bombs and explosive belts that killed tens and wounded I hundreds of Zionist occupiers,"2 meaning Jewish children and other civil- I ians. No one else was killed in the attack on Zatme.
The vice of targeted assassination is that those who authorize the hit are prosecutor, judge, and jury-and there is no appeal. In Israel, the deci- I sion regarding who is an appropriate target is generally made by highranking government officials with political accountability. The virtue of targeted assassination, if the targets are picked carefully and conservatively, is precisely that it is targeted and tends to avoid collateral damage and col- I lective punishment. Albert Camus's "just assassin" was employing targeted I assassination against an evil wrongdoer, and he refused to proceed in the face of collectively (or collaterally) punishing the evildoer's young niece and nephew. Even where there are collateral victims, there are fewer of them than in typical military reprisals.
Under international law and the laws of war, it is entirely legal to target and kill an enemy combatant who has not surrendered. Palestinian ter-
rorists-whether they are the suicide bombers themselves, those who recruit them, those in charge of the operation, or commanders of terrorist groups-are undoubtedly enemy combatants, regardless of whether they wear official uniforms or three-piece suits. It is lawful to kill an enemy combatant even when he is sleeping, as the United States tried to do with Saddam Hussein, so long as he has not surrendered. Nor need he be given an opportunity to surrender. He must take the initiative; otherwise the soldier on the other side will risk being fired upon. The Israeli government generally targets only terrorists, not political leaders, as evidenced by the fact that it has repeatedly protected the life ofYasser Arafat, who is both a political leader and a terrorist. Israel has also announced that it will stop targeting Hamas terrorists if the Palestinian Authority would start arresting them.
The key issue in evaluating targeted assassination is whether the targeting is sufficiently focused on the terrorist without unduly risking the lives of innocent (and sometimes not-so-innocent) civilians. For example, when the United States targeted Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harethi-al Qaeda's top man in Yemen-for assassination in Yemen, it blew up the car in which he was traveling, killing him and other occupants of the car. The only real question was whether those occupants were themselves appropriate targets. Similarly, when Israel bombed a terrorist headquarters in Gaza, targeting Mohammed Deif, a leading Hamas terrorist, the appropriate criticism-in which I joined-was that the action was not sufficiently targeted, in light of the fact that several innocent bystanders were killed or injured. Many Israelis shared my criticism of that particular assassination, and the Israeli military acknowledged that the intelligence on which that action was based was flawed. When the United States targeted Saddam Hussein and in the process killed many civilians, the issue was the same.
I believe that targeted assassination should only be used as a last recourse when there is no opportunity to arrest or apprehend the murderer (although this is not required by the law of war if the murderer is a combatant), when the terrorist is involved in ongoing murderous activities, and when the assassination can be done without undue risk to innocent bystanders. Proportionality is the key to any military action, and targeted assassination should be judged under that rubric. Under any reasonable standard, Israeli policy with regard to targeted assassinations of "ticking-bomb terrorists" does not deserve the kind of condemnation it is receiving, especially in comparison with other nations and groups whose legal actions are far less proportionate to the dangers they face.