Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing


  • Steven R. David

    1. Steven R. David is Professor of International Relations and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He specializes in international security issues, with an emphasis on the opportunities and challenges presented by the developing world.
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      This paper is adapted from Steven R. David, “Fatal Choices: Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing,”Mideast Security and Policy Studies, no. 51 (Ramat, Israel: The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2002).


Since the beginning of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, Israel has pursued a policy in which alleged Palestinian terrorists have been hunted down and killed by government order. The policy is not one of assassination and is consistent with international law because Israel is engaged in armed conflict with terrorists, those targeted are usually killed by conventional military means, not through deception, and the targets of the attacks are not civilians but combatants or are part of a military chain of command. Targeted killing has also been affirmed by Israel's High Court.

Although targeted killing has been pursued by Israel throughout its history, the scale of the present effort and the use of sophisticated military assets such as helicopter gunships and jet fighters set it apart from earlier practices. The effectiveness of the policy is called into doubt because it has not prevented–and may have contributed to–record numbers of Israeli civilians being killed. The policy has also resulted in informers being revealed, intelligence resources diverted, potential negotiating partners eliminated. It has also produced murderous retaliation and international condemnation of Israel. Benefits of the policy include impeding the effectiveness of terrorist operations, keeping terrorists on the run, and deterring some attacks. In addition, it affords the Israeli public a sense of revenge and retribution.

Because it targets the actual perpetrators of terrorism, targeted killing provides a proportionate and discriminate response to the threat Israel faces. Improving the policy will require better civilian oversight, greater care to eliminate harm to innocent bystanders, and refraining from killing political leaders. Despite its many shortcomings, Israel is justified in pursuing this policy so long as it faces a terrorist threat that the Palestinian Authority will not or cannot control.