Killing Terrorists Should Not Be Condemned, Israeli Opposition Leader Says

By Patrick Goodenough | February 25, 2010 | 4:24 AM EST

Dubai police chief Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim on Feb. 15 identifies an initial group of suspects wanted in connection with the killing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. (AP Photo/Dubai Ruler's Media Office)

( - While Israel is maintaining its customary policy of ambiguity over the assassination of a senior Hamas figure in Dubai, opposition leader Tzipi Livni has called on the international community to stop criticizing the targeting of terrorists.
“I don’t expect the world to welcome the killing of terrorists, but I do expect the world to not criticize it,” Livni, a former foreign minister, said in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
“Every terrorist must know that no one will support him when a soldier – and it doesn’t matter what soldier – tries to kill him, whether it is in the Gaza Strip, Afghanistan or Dubai,” The Jerusalem Post quoted her as saying.
According to Ha’aretz, Livni said, “The entire world must support those fighting terrorism: an American, British or Israeli soldier, regardless if he is in Gaza or Dubai. The fact that a terrorist was killed, and it doesn’t matter if it was in Dubai or Gaza, is good news to those fighting terrorism.”
Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a co-founder of Hamas’ “military wing,” Izzadin al-Qassam, was found dead in his Dubai hotel room on January 20. The Dubai authorities over the past week have released details of 26 individuals it says were part of the plot to kill him, saying it strongly suspects Israel’s Mossad of carrying out the hit.
The incident has sparked a diplomatic row, as governments in Europe and Australia demand explanations from Israel amid claims that citizens’ identities were stolen and fake passports used by the assassination team.
Al-Mabhouh by his own admission abducted and killed two Israeli soldiers 20 years ago. He later moved to Syria from where, according to Hamas, he was involved the acquisition of “special weapons” for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel says those weapons came from Iran.
Livni’s comments, delivered at a Jewish Agency board of governor’s meeting, were the first from a senior Israeli politician alluding to the Dubai assassination. She said she did not know who had killed al-Mabhouh.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (AP File Photo)

The Jerusalem Post said that in her remarks, she noted reports that NATO forces this week accidentally killed 27 civilians in Afghanistan – in an airstrike against what was believed to be a group of insurgents – adding, “she said it must be made clear that the world supports armies that are fighting terrorists, and not terrorists who target innocent civilians.”
Gerald Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, unlike missile strikes from unmanned drones targeting terrorists in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, “there was no ‘collateral damage’ in the mysterious Dubai hit. No innocent civilians were hurt, no buildings were damaged. Justice was done, and al-Mabhouh’s preparations for the next war ended quietly.”
Bahukutumbi Raman, an Indian security analyst and former counterterrorism official, said that laws of all countries, including his own, “provide this right of self-defense.”
Assuming that Israel was involved, Raman argued that “but for such covert actions Israel and the Jewish people might have been forced to their knees by now by their enemies,” said Raman. “It is such successful covert actions which have enabled the State of Israel to survive and even flourish.”
Specific criteria for targeted killings
Prof. Amos Guiora, professor of law of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, said Wednesday that targeted killings could be justified under very specific circumstances and with very specific criteria in place.
Speaking by phone about the principle of targeted killings in general, he cited a “four-part test,” involving collateral damage, alternatives, proportionality, and military necessity.
Guiora is a retired lieutenant-colonel who served in the Israel Defense Forces’ Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He has testified in U.S. congressional hearings on homeland security issues.
He compared targeted killings to drone attacks, saying that while both were predicated, from a legal perspective, on self-defense there was a fundamental difference between them.
“Targeted killings are the manifestation of person-specific counterterrorism based on a confluence of international law and intelligence information,” he said. “The drone attacks, as far as I can tell, are not person-specific in that the collateral damage from the drone attacks – at least the recent attacks – has not been insignificant.”
For a person to be a legitimate target from a legal point of view, Guiora said the individual would have to be “planning to be involved in a future act of terrorism,” on the basis of “valid, viable, reliable and corroborated” intelligence information.
“My reading of international law is that it does not allow for what we would call revenge-based counterterrorism.”
He said capturing a person would clearly be a better outcome since it would provide intelligence information, but acknowledged that in some cases, “for a variety of complicated operational reasons, detaining him represents major operational challenges, if not impossibilities.”
The use of pilot-less drones against terror suspects has been stepped up under the current U.S. administration.
A study last October by the New America Foundation found that drone strikes since President Obama took office had accounted for about 450 deaths, about one-quarter of them civilians.
The most significant reported victory was killing last August of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. His successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, is believed to have been killed in a similar attack in Pakistan’s northwest in January.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow