Monday, April 26, 2004

26 April 2004

Dear friends and colleagues,

The Washington Post article is available at

Its text infra, if for some reason you are unable to log in.

I very much enjoyed working with the Senior Editor of the Post, Steve Luxenberg. He was professional, direct, candid and cooperative, as all journalists should be. He allowed all the contributors to review the article prior publication, spoke to each of us in person, heard our concerns and cooperated to the best of his abilities. It was a pleasure working with him.

"Targeted Assassination," The Washington Post (Sunday, April 25, 2004), Outlook section, p. B4.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, director of the Center for Democratic Studies at the University of Haifa, is a visiting scholar this year at Johns Hopkins University's Institute of Policy Studies. He writes a monthly newsletter about Middle East politics that he sends to 300 people in 23 countries. It also appears on the Web at His comments in the newsletter about Israel's recent assassination of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin prompted a spirited exchange with several recipients. The following excerpts are published with the writers' permission.


Original Statement

March 29

I am not a pacifist. Being a pacifist is a luxury that we Israelis cannot afford. Every government has the right, and obligation, to defend its citizens. Hence targeted killing cannot be ruled out. When intelligence obtains verified information on ticking bombs, suicide murderers on their way to blow themselves up amidst citizens, Israel has the right and duty to kill those terrorists. . . . Furthermore, it is justified to kill chiefs of terrorist operations who plan and orchestrate murderous attacks. Therefore I thought Prime Minister Shimon Peres was right [in 1996] when he ordered the assassination of Yichye Ayash, "The Engineer," who prepared many terrorists for [Hamas's] heinous attacks.

Yassin was in a different category. Hardly a saint, but he was not an architect of terrorist operations, nor a potential ticking bomb. In a calculus of harms, trying to estimate [whether] more blood would be shed [if] Yassin [were] alive and free to instigate to murder, as he did for many years, or now that he became a dead martyr, I hasten to think more blood will be shed after the assassination. . . . Hamas will not be satisfied by just another "regular" murder. They will try to make a point, preparing something "special" in the name of Yassin. . . .

Response: Stephen Newman
Newman, a political science professor at York University in Toronto, took issue with Cohen-Almagor's view that some assassinations were justified.

March 30

At the end of the day, terrorism is a criminal problem and should be dealt with accordingly. It's just too easy to start bending the rules "because it's terrorism we're fighting." The war on terror in my own country, the United States, has already weakened protection for civil liberties and lent support to an ill advised and possibly illegal war against Iraq. It seems to me that in Israel the war on terror has coarsened Israeli public opinion and undermined the rule of law on both sides. . . . I don't trust the state -- any state -- to decide when it's allowable to assassinate its enemies. Nor do I trust the state to decide how much "collateral damage" is acceptable.

It seems to me that we do not avenge the murder of innocents by killing the innocent, even if at the same time we terminate a "legitimate" target. Tit-for-tat killings amount to a recipe for never-ending violence. A truly cynical man might venture that [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and Hamas both know this, and they opt for prolonging the violence in order to ward off the possibility of peace.

March 30

Hi Steve,

You have the luxury of living in Canada. As said, I do not have this luxury. I cannot afford being a pacifist, much as I want to. Believe me that I don't trust my government. I detest it and its heads. Thus I oppose political assassinations. But I have more trust in my army. If a senior general says: "That person was a suicide murderer, on his way to blow himself to pieces in our midst. We targeted him. His body exploded to smithereens as we did it," I don't have any problem with this. There is no other way to stop suicide murderers. [They] will blow [themselves] away anyway. The question is whether other people will get killed as well.

Of course we need to minimize harm and be careful not to kill innocent people. I agree with you on this. Sometimes this is not possible. But allowing suicide murderers to carry out their mission because we hold lofty ideas about peace, freedom, tolerance and because we mistrust our government -- well, this is not for me. . . .

I lost friends and colleagues in those murderous attacks. Last was Mark Biano, one of my best students ever. . . . A young man, with a young wife, both with promising futures, individually and as a family. Both of them were murdered in a restaurant on Shabbat, while having lunch. I am sorry. I cannot adopt your point of view.

March 31

Dear Rafi,

I'm not made of stone. In your place I would probably feel the same way.

I don't think of myself as a pacifist. Far from it. I accept the necessity of using lethal force in self-defense and in defense of others. I would not hesitate to kill a would-be murderer, were there no other way to prevent the crime. For the same reasons, I would not second-guess a police officer or soldier who used lethal force to prevent a suicide bombing. But I worry when state sanctioned assassinations become an instrument of policy. . . .

I proceed from two considerations: morality and utility. I think it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous violence on the innocent. I think you agree with me on this point. I also think it is counterproductive to inflict gratuitous violence on a civilian population, because it inflames public opinion and breeds resentment. I think you probably agree with me about this, too. So what do we disagree about, really? Well, beyond our disagreement over the appropriate level of force to be used in neutralizing an immediate threat, we might disagree about terrorism itself. I want to think about terrorism as a crime, thus subject to all the usual measures deployed against criminals and all the usual procedural safeguards associated with the rule of law. It seems to me that you think of terrorism differently, that for you it is not an ordinary crime and cannot be treated as such. Rather, it seems to me that you view terrorism more as a form of warfare. Thus, the usual procedures ass! ociated with the rule of law don't apply. . . .

March 31

Dear Steve,

. . . Well, terrorism is certainly NOT ordinary. It is anything but ordinary. Its entire raison d'etre is to break the rules of the game, to reinvent reality. To destroy. Then you might challenge and say: OK, it is not an ordinary crime. Maybe it is an unordinary crime. Say like a serial killer. [But unlike criminals], terrorists have political objectives and aspirations. They wish to destroy a land, a people; to transform society. . . . Some of them believe that violence has cleansing effect. It purifies them, their souls, their well being. . . .

I have been living all my life under the threat of terror, but it seems that all that took place before 1993 was different. Since 1993 the entire Israel is one front. Everyone is a possible target. The fact that terrorism is random makes all of us potential victims. In a state of terror you are constantly under siege. Under stress. You can expect the worst to come from anywhere. Again, I don't think that you will be able to understand this until living under such a situation. I see people here [in the United States]. Their lives are very different from the life of an average Israeli. Tranquility. We don't know this concept in Israel. We don't live it.



Another correspondent, who lives in Israel and asked to be identified only as M., questions the idea that assassination can be a form of self-defense.

March 29

Hi Rafi,

It's always good to read your bulletins. This time, though, I really am alarmed about your assertions relating to the legitimacy of targeted assassinations. You jump from the claim of right to self-defense, which nobody would disagree with, to a blanket acceptance of what is basically preemptive killings. . . .

[F]or my money you put altogether too much blind trust into the veracity of the claims made by the intelligence services about the hard information they have uncovered. And there is no accountability in anything they do. Goodness gracious, there are so many examples of where the intelligence agencies, in Israel and elsewhere, have been 100 percent wrong in their assessments and findings. And these are just the ones we know about publicly. What about all the intelligence reports that have never seen the light of day? Just look at the whole WMD fiasco in Iraq. . . . I am afraid given that reality I can place no confidence whatsoever in the accuracy and reliability of intelligence reports, certainly not when they are being used to justify assassination.

March 29

Hi M.,

Thanks for your concerns. Let me TRY to answer.

I acknowledge there are legal and moral problems involved in the policy of targeted assassination. I object to its being carried out as a matter of political whim. God forbid. I agree with you that self defense is permitted in certain situations and that the degree of force applied must be strictly limited to the needs of the specific situation. I said that targeted killing is permissible ONLY in two situations: ticking bombs (do you have problem with this?) and in cases like Yichye Ayash. That's it. No more.

Now we don't have any other source to rely upon but our intelligence. I can appreciate your reservations, but if someone is on [his] way to carry [out] a suicide attack, I think we need to rely on the information we have and stop him/her. As for the suicide planning side, luckily there are not many Ayashes around, and with regard to them the likelihood of misinformation is quite limited. . . .

Response: Jonathan Zasloff

Zasloff, a UCLA law professor, takes the opposite tack: He argues that Israel had cause to assassinate Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

April 18

One note, just to get this off of my chest: I think that you let your interlocutors on targeted killings off way too easily, by conceding to them that the Yassin (and now, presumably, the Rantisi) killing was not justified. I think that this is quite wrong, for reasons that you yourself suggest. . . .

I remain mystified as to your view of the Yassin killing. He was the political head of Hamas (at least in the territories); he was a key link in their strategic and operational command. He was able to unite and coordinate their various military commanders, and provided critical political unity to their operations in the territories. He was thus a perfectly legitimate target. Killing him -- and before him [Hamas leader Ismail Abu] Shanab, and after him Rantisi -- drove other leaders underground, made their communications more difficult. . . . I simply fail to see why this was illegitimate. If during World War II we had been able to use the threat of [a missile] strike against Hitler, we certainly would have done it, because it would have made it much more difficult for him and the Nazi Party to control military operations and the state apparatus. . . .

I do not want Israel to lose this war, despite my contempt for the Sharon government. I thus conclude that targeted killings that do not cause substantial civilian casualties are essentially justified and in fact the most moral form of warfare for Israel to wage. If they caused substantial casualties, then they MIGHT be another story, but [none have]. This is, so far, a very easy call.

April 19

Dear Jonathan:

Thanks for your comments. Yassin was not the political head of the Hamas. He was their spiritual leader. I don't think he was a key link in their strategic and operational command. The appropriate comparison therefore would be to Alfred Rosenberg rather than to Hitler.

Rantisi is a different matter. His official title was not spiritual leader, like Yassin's, but the Head of the Hamas in the region. He was involved in the planning and operation of terror attacks on Israel. His past is saturated with blood. Hence I am more inclined to justify his assassination. I remain opposed to the Yassin assassination.

With my very best wishes,


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