Recently, Yonatan Dror Bar-On of Dutchblog Israel e mailed a hearty mazel tov to me on my wife’s pregnancy (five weeks now!), which began an interesting personal exchange on various subjects which I hope will continue. He pointed me to a post he wrote about his daughter’s recent hospital visit to a Haifa area hospital for an infected finger.
While reading this post, I noted his post from today (April 17th) announcing Israel’s assassination of Abd el-‘Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas chief leader (see the Haaretz story, Hamas leader Rantisi killed in IAF strike in Gaza City). Yonatan is, as I know him from his blog, a progressive who supports Israeli-Palestinian peace wholeheartedly and the Palestinian right to self-determination.
Palestinians rage as rescuers attempt to free Rantisi’s body
from wreckage(credit: AP)
So I was a little surprised and perplexed to read his justification for the assassination:
It must be quite frustrating to be an insurance agent for Hamas leaders these days. Abd el-‘Aziz Rantisi has become the second ex-Hamas leader in less than a month. In contrast with the assassination of Ahmad Yassin, I have no serious problem with the timing or execution of this killing. No innocent people seem to have been killed or wounded (at least no foreign news agency reported such casualties, whereas if there is any collateral damage – I hate that expression – it is always mentioned right away). More than half an hour after the first reports I finally heard some Gazan doctor on the BBC talk about the “many, many women and children” who were supposed to be wounded or killed. Only hours before was an Israeli checkpoint attacked by a Hamas-Fatah terrorist, claiming the life of an Israeli Border-policeman.
Besides, Dr Rantisi was certainly not a frail man in a wheelchair, whose death had mainly a symbolic value. He fought a real short power struggle to receive the leadership of the terror organization, and he knew what he was getting into when he did that. I still wonder why it took so long for Israel’s security services to kill the man – after several political and military leaders had claimed before and after Yassin’s death that all terror leaders are potential targets for assasination -, but in the war against terror arresting or killing those responsible for acts of terorrism has proven effective in many ways.
Of course, all that does not relieve Sharon and his government of the obligation to try and find a true, more or less just and long-term solution to the conflict.
Aside from the macabre attempt at black-humor in the opening line (a characteristic of Israeli survivor/gallow’s humor), I couldn’t disagree more with his thinking on this subject.
I responded to Yonatan with these thoughts (some of which I expanded upon for this post):
I hadn’t heard about Rantisi’s killing until I’d read your post. I don’t disagree with you from a tactical perspective (he’s undoubtedly a murderous swine), but from an ethical & legal one. Perhaps the difference is that you’re on the front lines (in Israel) & I’m not but…how can we posit a future in which both peoples will live in peace & harmony & under the RULE OF LAW, when both sides and, almost to the same degree, flout both international law, their own local & national laws, and the basic laws of man?? Though some of my Orthodox brethren disagree, I don’t even find such a justification for extra-judicial, state-sponsored murder in our own halacha.
Certainly, there is a famous Talmudic passage which declares: Im ba l’hargecha, hashkem l’hargo,” “If one comes to kill you, rise up earlier [than he] to kill him.” In deference to George Bush’s justification of the Iraq War, we might call this dictum pre-emptive murder. [For a fuller halachi discussion of the meaning of this phrase in the context of modern terrorism, read the interesting, but troublesome discussion at the American Jewish Committee website, If Someone Comes to Kill You, Rise Up and Kill Him First.] Some of Israel’s most respected leaders including then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres have used this statement to justify killings like those of Yassein and Rantisi.
Perhaps not many may wish to engage in this halachic debate, but I would disagree with this interpretation of the Talmudic verse. In an e mail to an Orthodox American-Israeli friend who raised this passage as justification for an earlier such assassination, I wrote:
One might argue that the murdered militants intended to commit future murders & therefore their killing was justified. The IDF spokesperson argued just that & clearly felt no remorse whatsoever for the killing. I will never accept killing an unarmed man (no matter what his future intentions might be) as valid military policy. It is flat out immoral to me. I know you will argue that the Torah or Talmud permits us to murder those who intend to murder us. But I do not live by this law. What gives me the right to make this murderous judgment? A different Talmudic passage declares that when given a choice between murdering another or being murdered oneself, one must give up one’s own life. The statement concludes with a powerful moral: “Is your blood redder than his?” I do not think I could make the choice that Yonatan apparently can.
If a Palestinian schemes to kill an Israeli that certainly is a crime. But a conspiracy to commit murder does not rise to the level of permitting you to murder that person. If you do this then you become judge, jury and executioner. I would NEVER arrogate that right to myself.
While I understand that Israel feels it is acting in self-defense and only in response to great provocation, Israel is a State: as such a State has a deeper burden and faces greater constraints on State-sponsored behavior than non-State entities. If Sharon & his ilk would only allow the Palestinians their own State then I believe it would place much heavier legal, ethical & moral constraints on Palestinian behavior as well.
At any rate, what I mean to say is that Israel does not have to right to act in the way that the Stern Gang, Lehi or Etzel (pre-State Israeli terrorist gangs) acted pre-1948. And I see very little difference between Yitzhak Shamir & his thugs assassinating Count Bernadotte & the IDF assassinating Rantisi & Yassein. Well, of course there is some difference since Bernadotte was an internationally recognized diplomat and respected UN mediator while the Palestinians were both out & out thugs (but still respected, revered & admired within their political constituencies). But that makes little difference as to the meaning of the acts of assassination themselves. That in my opinion is treif, pasul & flat out wrong in both cases (Bernadotte & Yassein/Rantisi).
I also cannot understand how you can state that such assassinations have “been effective.” How do you measure “effective?” No doubt, you’ll point to the “lull” in lethal attacks since Yassein’s murder. But do you really believe that in the near to short term that such attacks WILL NOT occur and when they do, be spectacularly lethal to Israelis?? Please understand that I’m not saying that I wish this to happen or that it would cause me anything less than terrible pain to hear of it–but it seems almost an incontrovertible fact of nature that such killing will resume and resume with a vengeance. I hope I am wrong but know I am not.