In Israel, a Divisive Struggle Over Targeted Killing

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006


Israel's top military commander sat on the edge of his bed, talking on the phone, rubbing his forehead. The bedroom door was closed, muffling the Saturday clink and giggle of his children at lunch. His chief of operations was on the gray, secure phone, the line that rang louder and sharper and made his heart beat fast.

The report came from the war room: The bomb was falling .

Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon stared at the tiles on his floor, working out two plans: 1) If they die. 2) If they don't. The bomb -- the one he'd been arguing over and deliberating all day -- was plunging 10,000 feet from an Israeli F-16 toward a Palestinian house in the Gaza Strip, where guests sat, eating rice and boiled chicken. Yaalon was hoping, he recalled in an interview, that it would be their last lunch. With targeted killings, it was rarely that simple.

It was Sept. 6, 2003, a time -- much like today -- of open warfare between Israel and Hamas, which Israel, the United States and Europe have labeled a terrorist group, and which now controls the Palestinian Authority. Eight Hamas leaders had gathered to plan terrorist attacks, Israeli intelligence reported.

"It was like bin Laden, Zarqawi and Zawahiri in a meeting, and having the capability to hit them," said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, then the air force chief, and now the military chief of staff.

The Hamas leaders had gathered in a private home, in a crowded neighborhood, when the children were out of school. A massive strike would mean civilian casualties. "We had to decide if we're going to take them out or not," said Halutz, who said he supervised 80 to 100 targeted killings as head of the air force, "with a 90 percent success rate."

In Israel, targeted killing has become a select weapon. In Lebanon last month, Israel targeted a bunker that officials believed held Hezbollah's leadership, pounding it with 23 tons of explosives. The hit list in Gaza, Halutz said in an interview, consists of 15 names.

"It is the most important, the most important, method of fighting terror," Halutz said.

It is also, arguably, the most morally complicated. Since the beginning of 2006, Israel has targeted and killed 18 Palestinian fighters, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Fifteen civilians were also killed, the group said.

"We face a tragic dilemma," said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, chief of military intelligence. "A terrorist is going to enter a restaurant and blow up 20 people. But if we blow up his car, three innocent people in the car will die. How do we explain it to ourselves?"

One morning in 2002, Yadlin recalled, he "woke up horrified" to learn that 15 Palestinian civilians had been killed in an operation. That afternoon, Yadlin called Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor, and began working on ethical guidelines for fighting terrorism. They also asked a mathematician to write a formula to determine acceptable civilian casualties per dead terrorist.

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