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Middle East: Policy Of 'Targeted Assassinations' Raises Difficult Questions In Age Of Terrorism

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Despite international condemnation, Israel says it intends to continue its policy of assassinating the leaders of the militant Islamic organization Hamas. The announcement follows the killing this week of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Can a country eliminate its opponents by the bullet, where no formal state of war exists? Has the "war on terrorism" uniquely changed the ground rules?

Prague, 24 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Israel says it intends to continue its controversial policy of assassinating leaders of the militant Islamic movement Hamas.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz says that striking with determination against Hamas and other extremist groups will bring more security to Israelis. Hamas has spearheaded the wave of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years.

The announcement came just a day after Israeli helicopters attacked and killed Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as he was leaving a mosque in Gaza.

"Of course, it's war. I mean, if your cities are bombed on a regular basis, what [else] is it?"
Yassin has been replaced by Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a hard-liner who vowed at his election last night that there will be no security for Jews and that war is now "open" with Israel.

"Sheikh Ahmed Yassin is our symbol, and we will continue on the same policy of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and we will carry all the goals that Sheikh Ahmed Yassin believed in," Rantisi said.

Rantisi says Khaled Mashal, a physics teacher in his late 40s who directs Hamas's political bureau from Damascus, will be what he called the group's "first head" -- its world leader. Rantisi said he will follow Mashal's lead.

Israel has come in for international condemnation for killing Yassin, who is by far the most senior Hamas official targeted by Israel's assassination policy. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was one of Israel's many critics.

"[Israel] is not entitled to go in for this kind of unlawful killing, and we, therefore, condemn it. It is unacceptable. It is unjustified. And it is very unlikely to achieve its objectives," Straw said.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, has not issued the same direct criticism, calling Yassin's assassination only "deeply troubling." President George W. Bush yesterday cited Israel's right to self-defense but reminded its leadership to consider the consequences of its actions.

"Israel has the right to defend herself from terror, and as she does so, I hope she keeps consequences in mind as to how to make sure we stay on the path to peace," Bush said.

Shahran Chubin is the director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. He says the United States finds it difficult to condemn Israel for its actions against groups it considers to be terrorist organizations when Washington is doing much the same itself.

"It has been very hard for the Americans to preach to the Israelis about accommodating what the Israelis consider terrorists. [It's difficult] for the Americans to say [to Israel] that you should accommodate to them, while they themselves pursue an unlimited war against their terrorists -- namely Osama bin Laden," Chubin said.

Israeli officials have in the past justified their policies by referencing the actions of the United States.

The devastating terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 killed some 3,000 people. Since then, U.S. determination to ensure its security has led it into conventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and into a global hunt for terrorists, including the elusive Al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden.

After 9/11, Bush effectively lifted a 25-year U.S. ban on foreign assassinations to allow the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to target bin Laden and other top Al-Qaeda leaders.

So are extrajudicial killings, or assassinations, unlawful? International lawyers generally argue that much depends on whether a formal state of war exists between the adversaries. A foreign leader cannot be assassinated in peacetime, for instance, simply because another country does not like his policies.

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Antonella Notari, says that a general rule throughout the Geneva Conventions is that civilian targets must not be attacked during war. She says an individual civilian loses the right to protection under the conventions, however, when the civilian takes "direct participation in combat activities."

This phrase is open to interpretation. Yassin, of course, was not carrying a gun into battle, but the Israelis would doubtless argue that his participation in the planning and execution of suicide bombings constitutes "direct" participation. Hamas would doubtless argue the reverse. Notari says that, when in question, international law requires the benefit of the doubt to be given to the civilian concerned.

Conversely, the spokeswoman notes that the killing of civilians in suicide bomb attacks is a breach of both the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.

Analyst Chubin notes that the "war on terrorism" is not a conventional fight between armies, and that there is no formal declaration of war, such as an international lawyer would recognize -- all of which makes clear assessments difficult:

"It's an ongoing war, in a sense, with no clear boundaries, no clear beginning, no clear end, no clear foe."

Therefore, the killing of Yassin or other extremist leaders is not illegal, he says. But whether it is politically wise to do so is questionable. It may not result in the hoped-for decapitation of terrorist groups but may simply inspire them to more action.

In Geneva, analyst Chubin notes that many aspects of the war on terrorism defy classification under the older, established rules of combat. For this reason, he says, it's probably time to look again at those rules -- to reaffirm what is "in bounds" and "out of bounds."

"The Red Cross, the International Red Cross, and other humanitarian people, lawyers, and others, would argue that there is a necessity for sharpening our definitions [relating to war]. Otherwise, the situation can become totally open-ended," Chubin said.

Chubin makes the point that, in the present confused situation, where precedents are few, governments should take a long-term view and not be swayed too readily by expediency: "I think it behooves everybody to ask themselves -- do you want to get into the shadowy twilight zone where governments act pretty much like terrorists?"

Meanwhile, Israeli troops and tanks entered the Palestinian Khan Younis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip today as part of operations to prevent militant attacks following Yassin's assassination.