Israel Drafting New Guidelines On Fighting Suicide Terrorism

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is drafting an international convention against suicide terrorism based on its own experience in combating terror in the field.

A foreign ministry official said Israel hopes the new guidelines will help define what is permissible in the war against terror.

Since September 2000 (and before), Israel has been faced with a steady barrage of terror attacks, launched by suicide bombers who make their way into crowded places such as restaurants, shopping malls, or buses, and blow themselves up.

Israel says it is difficult to stop someone who is willing to kill himself. The challenge of protecting civilians has prompted Israel to use controversial methods of combating terrorism during the last two years of ongoing violence.

The international community has frequently criticized Israel, and human rights groups have accused it of committing war crimes.

Several Israeli leaders have been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity for the ways they have dealt with terrorism. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was accused of war crimes in a Belgian Court last year; and current Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was almost arrested in England a few weeks ago.

Israeli legal experts say that Israel and even the U.S. have faced a dilemma in dealing with terrorism, because current international conventions don't include a definition of terrorism as a war crime, nor do they give countries an affective means to deal with it.

According to Foreign Ministry Legal Advisor Alan Baker, terrorism is not new but despite many efforts, the international community has yet to define it.

"There are several international conventions that deal with war crimes and that define war crimes, but strangely enough, from 1937 to today, despite attempts to define terrorism, there's not internationally accepted definition," Baker told reporters and diplomats at a meeting at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Current conventions condemn actions usually considered to be terrorism - hijacking airplanes, taking hostages, attacking airports or ships, for example - but no convention has been able to define terrorism.

The new International Criminal Court in The Hague lists crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide but does not include terrorism, because the drafters of the statute could not agree on a definition.

Even after September 11, attempts by a special committee of the U.N. to come up with a united front against terrorism were scuttled by the Conference of Islamic States, which wanted to exclude activities of parties "during an armed conflict, including the situation of foreign occupation," Baker said.

"In other words, doing what was done to the World Trade Center or doing what is being done here in our area is not covered by a comprehensive convention against terrorism," he said.

"We have decided of our own initiative to draft a new international convention against suicide terrorism," Baker told diplomats and journalists in a meeting at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in Jerusalem.

"How can one draft a convention against suicide terrorism - the terrorists are dead," Baker said.

"But these whole elements we've seen of our own experience - the financing, the incitement, the family support, the state support, including Western European countries, Scandinavian countries where you see people who are being permitted to demonstrate wearing suicide kits - the masks and the mock suicide belts. All these things are being interpreted by Palestinians as approval, a green light and support," he said.

Not just theory

Col. Daniel Reisner, head of the Israeli army's International Law Department, faces the challenge of applying existing conventions to Israel's actions. Reisner is responsible for making sure the army's operations against another country are legal according to international law.

"My problem is the rule book I work with, the documentation I have to work with, the conventions I use...[have] nothing to do with the situation we find ourselves in," said Reisner. "There are no books on international terrorism fighting."

According to Reisner, there are peacetime rules in which citizens are divided into civilians or criminals; and wartime rules, which divide the population between civilians and combatants. But those lines become blurred in the case of terrorism.

For example, Reisner said, if intelligence information indicates that someone is a suicide bomber, should Israel send the police to arrest him? If the suicide bomber shows the police his bomb belt, can an officer shoot him if he hasn't actually committed a crime yet?

"That is the dilemma. No country in the world has come up with a good response of what we can do to a suicide bomber," Reisner said.

He said Israel has over the last year and a half initiated a pre-emptive policy called "ticking bomb." According to Reisner, when Israel has evidence that terrorists are about to strike, "then we have the possibility of 'taking them out.'

But it's not always easy, he said: "Our problem of course is that they have the tendency to hide in civilian...areas in which we have the problem of collateral damage...

"When we started this policy a year and a half ago, we took a lot of flack... If I have information for example about a terrorist bomber who is going to carry out a suicide attack this afternoon and we can catch him en route and shoot a missile into his car when he's trying to come into Israel, can I do that?" Reisner asked.

"The answer is definitely yes. Why? Because he's a combatant," he answered. When we started, everyone said, 'You can't do that.' We've actually convinced most of the international community that we can do that. It does comply with the old rules of war."

Israel has recognized that it is in an armed conflict against terrorists who cannot always be identified beforehand, Reisner said.

"President George Bush came to the same conclusion. He published a military order, in his capacity as commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, saying the United States is in an armed conflict against al Qaeda," he said.

International law will have to be adapted to the new reality, he said.

"If the international community wants to survive this new period, it has to adapt itself, giving armies and countries tools to fight terrorism," he added.