Israel, the US and "Targeted Killings"

by Chris Toensing , Ian Urbina | published February 17, 2003

Six Hamas militants killed in a car explosion on February 16 were assassinated by Israel, Hamas claims. While Israel denies involvement in the deaths, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on February 17 that Israel will assassinate other members of the military wing of Hamas as part of its planned lengthy incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip to avenge four soldiers killed when Hamas blew up a tank near the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza. Israel’s assassination policy is openly declared.

Since November 2000, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, Israel has conducted 85 extrajudicial executions—or “targeted killings” in Israeli parlance—of Palestinian militia leaders and security personnel suspected of involvement in attacks on Israelis. Several of these “targeted killings,” often carried out with helicopter-borne missiles, have claimed the lives of bystanders, often including children. Israel has long defended this practice from domestic and international critics, who traditionally included the State Department, by painting it as a necessary tactic in time of war. In the absence of comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace, Israel’s legal argument goes, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a regularly interrupted “ceasefire” in a war that began in 1967. Since the September 11 attacks and the US war in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his neo-conservative allies in George W. Bush’s White House have further argued that Israel’s campaign to crush Palestinian resistance to occupation, in which “targeted killings” are one tool, is part and parcel of the US “war on terrorism.” In US policymaking circles, the argument appears to be succeeding.

In early February 2003, the Forward—a venerable New York-based Jewish weekly—reported that US and Israeli legal experts have met in recent months to discuss methods of justifying the legality of assassination. According to high-level Israeli sources, US representatives had approached Israeli government jurists to hear about methods for confronting possible challenges, either in international or domestic courts, to “targeted killings” that might be sanctioned by Washington.

Several weeks earlier, on January 15, UPI intelligence correspondent Richard Sale quoted multiple Israeli and US official sources stating that the Mossad has been given permission to carry out “targeted killings” on the soil of friendly countries, including the United States. Remarkably, the Bush administration has thus far declined to comment on the reported expansion of Israel’s assassination policy. Only one journalist, Russell Mokhiber, bothered to ask White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer for a response, which Fleischer has yet to provide. State Department spokesmen have issued no statement on the matter. Together with the Bush administration’s ever deepening silence about “targeted killings” of Palestinians, these developments illustrate a steady convergence between US and Israeli tactics in the two countries’ respective “wars on terrorism.”

Mixed Signals

In contrast to their vociferous condemnations of all kinds of Palestinian violence, successive US administrations have given mixed signals to Israel about “targeted killings,” which European governments and human rights groups unequivocally deem to be extrajudicial executions. Official and oft-stated State Department opposition to the practice has frequently been undermined, and even contradicted, by milder rebukes from other parts of the government.

According to B’tselem, Israel carried out nine “liquidations” of Palestinian militia leaders and security personnel between the beginning of the second intifada and the end of Clinton’s presidency. The first extrajudicial execution of the intifada occurred on November 9, 2000, when an Israeli Apache helicopter rocketed the car of Fatah leader Hussein Abayat, killing Abayat and three others. The US stopped short of publicly criticizing the hit. White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said only, “We continue to gather facts,” and expressed his “disappointment” that violence on both sides was continuing. Crowley’s statement seemed to regret the assassination primarily for its effect on Washington’s half-hearted attempts to revive the Oslo “peace process” of the 1990s.

Rejecting Clinton’s close engagement with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the pre-September 11 Bush White House sought merely to quiet “Middle East violence” down to a dull roar. But targeted killings were considered “unhelpful” to this modest aim as well. On February 13, 2001, seven days after the election of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel resumed assassinations in the Occupied Territories with a helicopter attack on the car of Masoud Ayyad, an officer in Gaza’s security services. George W. Bush reportedly called the prime minister’s office to appeal for an end to “the tragic cycle of violent action and reaction.” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters: “The use of Israeli helicopter gunships, Palestinian attacks against settlements and motorists, the use of mortars by Palestinians and the targeted killings by the Israeli Defense Force...are producing a new cycle of action or reaction which can become impossible to control.”

“Too Aggressive”

As Sharon intensified “targeted killings” in the summer of 2001 (B’tselem documented 17 in the months of June, July and August), the US faced fresh criticism stemming from the use of US-manufactured weaponry, like Apache helicopters, in the operations. Already in late May, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) had asked the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to determine whether Israel’s use of F-16 fighters to bomb targets in the Occupied Territories constituted a violation of the Arms Export Control Act. This 1975 legislation requires the State Department to monitor US arms sales to foreign countries to make sure purchased weapons are only used for “internal security” and “legitimate self-defense.” While the State Department successfully evaded the thrust of the Conyers inquiry, Boucher was twice compelled to restate US opposition to targeted killings under sharp questioning about the Act. Appearing on CNN one day after Israel assassinated two Hamas members (and also killed two young boys) with an anti-tank missile on July 31, Secretary of State Colin Powell said: “We have a consistent view that this kind of response [to Palestinian attacks] is too aggressive and it just serves to increase the level of tension and violence in the region.”

State Department condemnations of extrajudicial executions, however, have coexisted uneasily with the general Bush administration view that Israel has been engaged in “self-defense” during the current conflict. While this view became hegemonic during the Israeli army’s three West Bank offensives in 2002, Dick Cheney gave a preview when he defended the July 31 assassination on FOX News: “If you’ve got an organization that has plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have evidence of who it is and where they’re located, I think there’s some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting.” The resulting flurry of press speculation about a split between Powell and Cheney prompted a hurried White House reinforcement of Powell’s position opposing targeted killings.

Justice by Hellfire Missile

If Israel’s systematic use of lethal force in the Occupied Territories rarely draws comment from the US any longer, until recently assassinations have been an exception. In July 2002, the State Department and White House criticized the Israeli bombing of a crowded Gaza apartment building to “liquidate” Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh. The explosion killed 15 civilians, in addition to Shehadeh, and injured 176 others. Referring to the action as “heavy-handed,” Richard Boucher reiterated, “we’ve made repeatedly clear that we oppose targeted killings.”

However, both advocates of Israel’s extrajudicial executions and human rights advocates who oppose the practice have long suspected that the US position is based less on principle than on political expediency. Indeed, under the cross-examination of the Washington press corps on November 5, 2002, Boucher caviled: “I would say that, if you look back at what we have said about targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context, you will find that the reasons we have given do not necessarily apply in other circumstances.”

Chiefly, Boucher meant, State Department opposition to targeted killings does not extend to similar operations carried out by the US. Two days earlier, Bush had given the go-ahead for operatives to kill Qa’id Sinan al-Harithi, a suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and an accused member of al-Qaeda. From 150 miles away at a base in the east African country of Djibouti, the CIA launched a remote-controlled, unmanned Predator drone to track al-Harithi in Yemen. When his car reached an open road in the Yemeni countryside, the Predator fired a missile from 10,000 feet overhead. Al-Harithi and five other passengers in the vehicle, one of them a US citizen, were immediately incinerated. Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh denounced al-Harithi’s killing as “a summary execution.”

Since November 2002, again according to B’tselem, Israel has assassinated nine more Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, throughout the months from November until February 2003, there has been virtually no comment on the killings from the Bush administration. Before November, Israeli targeted killings came up frequently in White House and State Department press briefings, but a search of their websites reveals that, except for the question posed by Mokhiber, the subject has not been raised once since Boucher’s awkward moment on November 5. One former senior White House official admitted plainly to the New York Times that “criticism [of Israel] diminished as the administration sought to move aggressively against al-Qaeda.” The Bush administration appears to have accepted Israel’s position that the US cannot criticize “targeted killings” in the Occupied Territories if it also intends to administer justice with Hellfire missiles. Further, the meeting reported by the Forward shows that the US believes a lawyer might argue that al-Harithi’s killing in US-allied Yemen was an assassination on friendly soil.

Steady Dilution

Officially, the US got out of the assassination business after 1974 Congressional hearings aired an embarrassing list of operations, many of them bungled, to knock off such figures as the Congo’s Lumumba, Haiti’s Duvalier, Indonesia’s Sukarno and the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo. The toxic cigars, exploding seashells and poisoned bathing suits used in failed attempts to eliminate Fidel Castro immediately evoke a notorious and bygone era.

But the categorical ban on political assassination, signed into law by President Gerald Ford, has been steadily diluted by “interpretations” that allowed for the offing of enemies when it came as the unintended consequence of a military action against a country allegedly involved with terrorism. In 1986, without stating the explicit intention of killing Col. Muammar Qaddafi, President Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of the Libyan leader’s compound, remarking that he would shed no tears if Qaddafi were killed. Bill Clinton further loosened the legal bonds tying US hands with a secret memorandum expanding the use of deadly covert action, and authorizing lethal force against al-Qaeda in 1998.

With the attacks of September 11 and the subsequent declaration of the “war on terrorism,” George W. Bush, with Congress at his side, laid claim to unprecedented global jurisdiction in tracking down and “bringing to justice” members of al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the US initially hesitated before targeting individuals for death outside the context of direct armed engagement between US soldiers and targets in the “war on terrorism.” In October 2001, a military lawyer argued against giving the Air Force permission to strike a convoy of Taliban vehicles in Afghanistan, in part because non-combatant women and children might be harmed, but also because the Taliban leader believed to be in the convoy, Mullah Mohammed Omar, might be considered a civilian. The attack was called off, to furious criticism in the media, and the US aversion to killing al-Qaeda and Taliban figures from the sky quickly faded away. In the 2003 State of the Union address, Bush veered close to admitting, even bragging, about the administration’s involvement in targeted killings, letting slip that numerous al-Qaeda members who were not caught and brought to trial have been “otherwise dealt with.” “All told,” he swaggered, “more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries, and many others have met a different fate.”

Claiming Exemption

Thanks to the expansive war powers granted to Bush by Congress after September 11, and the capacious new category of “enemy combatant,” Bush administration lawyers have thus far parried challenges to al-Harithi’s killing with little effort. Al-Harithi was a suspect in the Cole bombing, they say, and an al-Qaeda member at war with the US. Hence his killing can be justified legally under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which grants the right of preemptive self-defense, and does not violate the Ford-era assassination ban. NGOs concerned with civil liberties and abuse of government power are in a bind.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, seemed to endorse Bush’s position when he told the Forward: “The core of the issue is when it is appropriate to treat somebody as an enemy combatant rather than as a criminal suspect,” Roth said. “If you’re an enemy combatant, you can be shot. That’s what war is about. So the real question is when it is appropriate to characterize someone as such.” By that measure, Roth explained, Human Rights Watch did not object to the killing of al-Harithi. On February 10, the American Bar Association passed a resolution highly critical of Bush’s willingness to declare US citizens and residents “enemy combatants” in order to detain them without legal representation. But a press officer from the ABA told Middle East Report that “at the present moment the ABA does not have a stance on the category of enemy combatant and the issue of targeted killings as it plays out abroad.”

At the time of the al-Harithi hit, Amnesty International complained in a letter to Bush that the US was skating perilously close to “extrajudicial executions”—al-Harithi, a criminal suspect, had been deliberately killed rather than arrested. Further, the killings can hardly be justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter because al-Harithi did not pose a demonstrated imminent threat to US national security, as the Charter requires for justification of preemptive strikes. But the powers granted to Bush after September 11 allow him to define who is an enemy combatant, and expressly do not limit US pursuit of al-Qaeda members to inside the borders of Afghanistan. The “war on terrorism” is, in many ways, being conducted outside the territory charted by international law.

Israel also claims exemption from international law in its “administration” of occupied Palestine, as Lisa Hajjar, an expert on international law as it applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, explains. Meir Shamgar, Israel’s military advocate general from 1961-1968 and later attorney general, constructed an elaborate legal theory arguing that various bodies of international law did not apply in the Occupied Territories because the Territories’ legal status was sui generis. In the 1967 war, Shamgar asserted, Israel had conquered lands from Egypt and Jordan, but Egypt and Jordan were occupiers of those lands, not recognized sovereign rulers. Because only one country’s sovereign territory could be occupied by another country, the West Bank and Gaza could not be considered “occupied” by Israel. Neither were the West Bank and Gaza a high contracting party to the Geneva Conventions. By such arguments, Israel has exempted itself from de jure adherence to the Fourth Geneva Convention in occupied Palestine—and provisions of international law that prohibit extrajudicial executions.

“Laboratory for Fighting Terror”

For its part, al-Qaeda is acting upon its rhetoric reviling “Crusaders and Jews” with violent operations that encourage US-Israeli convergence in both tactics and worldview. On November 28, 2002, two bombs blew up in the Paradise Hotel located just outside of Mombasa, Kenya. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack, which killed 16 people, several of them Israeli. Mossad agents almost immediately flew to Nairobi. Sharon told the Israeli press simply that “Our arm is long. None shall escape.” Zalman Shoval, diplomatic adviser to the prime minister, added, “This is a turning point, [much] like the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972.”

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, besides winking at Sharon’s conflation of the Palestinians with al-Qaeda, seems to be moving ever closer to Sharon’s view of counter-terrorism as solely a security matter to be addressed with military force. In May 2002, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s hawkish undersecretary for policy, made a much-publicized trip to Tel Aviv to talk to Sharon and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer. The Israeli paper Haaretz reported that the meeting covered “war games, intelligence sharing and other cooperation.” Four weeks later, Israel’s top two security chiefs, Brig. Gen. David Tzur and Uzi Landau, minister of interior security, went to Washington to propose the creation of a new US-Israeli office to combat terrorism. Tzur and Landau met Feith on June 27.

According to the Guardian, the joint office, to be located in Washington, would operate a communications link between the newly inaugurated Department of Homeland Security and the Israeli government for swapping visa policies, terrorist profiles and other internal security data. While countries like India and Pakistan regularly send representatives to bilateral “working committees on counter-terrorism” in Washington, no foreign country has a standing office within a department of the US government. In an interview with the Washington Times, Landau said that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) are “especially receptive” to his idea. (Feinstein’s office confirmed her continued interest to Middle East Report.) Added the interior minister: “Israel is a laboratory for fighting terror.”

Blunt Instrument

Whatever else might be said about US-Israeli “security” collaboration, historically the “targeted killings” now executed by both countries have proven to be a blunt instrument. Seymour Hersh has recounted a fatal mistake in Afghanistan where CIA officers watching via a Predator thousands of feet above ground captured images of a very tall man being greeted effusively, or so it seemed, by a small group of colleagues. Hersh writes: “It was quickly agreed that the tall man could be Osama bin Laden, and a request was made through the chain of command to launch a Hellfire. Minutes went by before permission was granted.” The tall man was not Osama bin Laden. Instead, the Hellfire killed three local men who had been scavenging in the woods for scrap metal.

After nine Israeli athletes taken hostage by the militant Palestinian group Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics were killed in a botched German rescue attempt (two others had been killed by Black September), the Mossad’s “Wrath of God” battalion criss-crossed the globe searching for planners of the hostage-taking. In 1973, Israeli agents “targeting” one such person in Norway instead shot a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchikhi, who was walking home from the cinema with his pregnant wife. In 1997, two Mossad agents were captured in Amman, Jordan after injecting Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal with poison in a another bungled assassination attempt. Jordan is one of two Arab nations to have signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Though Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli prime minister, insisted that “we did the right thing [in Jordan] for the right reasons,” Israel quickly supplied Jordan with an antidote for the poison in Meshaal’s body, freed the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and also let loose dozens of other Palestinian prisoners in exchange in exchange for the two arrested Israeli agents. Canada withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in protest, because the Mossad men had carried Canadian passports. Clinton administration spokesmen would not go so far as to condemn the attempted poisoning of Meshaal. Instead, they merely restated what, at least at that time, was official US government policy: “We do not engage in assassinations.”

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