I was reading the New Israel Fund’s NIF Blog yesterday which featured a column by Larry Garber, the executive director. I have nothing but respect and admiration for NIF and Larry. But I was taken aback by his recommendation of a Washington Post article about Israel’s campaign of targeted killings against Palestinian militants: In Israel, a Divisive Struggle Over Targeted Killing
It is essentially a paean to Israeli military intelligence and its supposed moral conscience when it comes to targeted killings. The article is full of unsubstantiated claims about the targets & victims of these tactics, and is backed up by nothing more than a senior Israeli intelligence officer’s say-so. The supposedly conflicted moral consciences of these officials are presented as the epitome of ethical behavior. No where in this article is a Palestinian–or any doubter’s–point of view on the tactic presented. Could it be that the IDF & Mossad have taken such a shellacking lately that they feel a need to present a more moral face to the world? This is a dream piece for that purpose. I wonder whether it also might not suit Moshe Yaalon’s expected return to Israeli politics when his diplomatic tour ends in Washington soon for him to be presented as the tormented Hamlet of this story.
The article begins with a dramatic flourish worthy of a Tom Clancy movie. The scene is set in the Israeli general’s home with children playing gleefully in the background. So cinematic and so human!
Israel’s top military commander sat on the edge of his bed, talking on the phone, rubbing his forehead. The bedroom door was closed, muffling the Saturday clink and giggle of his children at lunch. His chief of operations was on the gray, secure phone, the line that rang louder and sharper and made his heart beat fast.
The report came from the war room: The bomb was falling .
Of course, this being a potential Hollywood screenplay, the reporter holds back the outcome of the bombing till the very end of the piece. Suffice to say, I’m going to break the spell and reveal to you that the IDF had hit the spook’s jackpot and hoped to kill the entire senior leadership of Hamas, which was meeting in a Gaza apartment building.
The date was September 6, 2003, and Israel and Hamas were in the midst of an ongoing war of terror and counter-terror. But that setting of tremendous mutual violence doesn’t give the reporter the right to make this unverified statement:
Eight Hamas leaders had gathered to plan terrorist attacks, Israeli intelligence reported.
Well, sure we have Israeli intelligence’s word that this was the meeting agenda. But how do we know that its word is accurate?
From the perspective of an Israeli general, all Hamas leaders are terrorists thus the meeting could have been about no other subject than planning terror attacks. But the reality is often different than what Israel proclaims. Here is Dan Halutz setting the scene for us and evaluating the target:
“It was like bin Laden, Zarqawi and Zawahiri in a meeting, and having the capability to hit them,” said Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, then the air force chief, and now the military chief of staff.
As Ronald Reagan used to say: “There he goes again.” Notice Halutz conveniently associates the Hamas leaders with Al Qaeda much the same distorted way that Rumsfeld and Cheney do. But who were those Hamas leaders meeting that day? One of them was Ismail Haniye, the current Palestinian prime minister. In this single fact, we see the essentially flawed nature of targeted assassination as a tactic. Who can say that the man you kill today would not become the political leader who, in future, might resolve the conflict between your two nations?
The other major figure at the meeting was Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ titular leader. Though Israel did not succeed in killing him that day, it did kill him eventually by, in the memorably charming words of an Israeli general quoted in this article, “a missile in his lap.” By killing the relatively moderate Yassin, Israel bumped to the head of the Hamas leadership line, Khaled Meshal. He’s the one who’s caused Israel no end of headaches by masterminding the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in Gaza. Meshal is generally considered by almost everyone to be among the most intransigent of all Hamas’ leaders. That’s what targeted assassinations do. They bring leaders even worse than the ones you’ve killed.
But if you hear Halutz tell it, targeted killing is a stellar counter-terror tactic:
“It is the most important, the most important, method of fighting terror,” Halutz said.
Oh really? Let’s hear from the reporter herself on that subject:
In Lebanon last month, Israel targeted a bunker that officials believed held Hezbollah’s leadership, pounding it with 23 tons of explosives.
Didn’t work that time now did it? Didn’t work numerous times in the past months in Gaza when the IAF serially erred in killing numerous civilians in multiple failed targeted killings. I have a question to ask this reporter: why has she provided no voice questioning this bald, unproven assumption by Halutz? Are we to trust the general’s statement on faith? Remember, this is the same dude who brought Shock and Awe II to Lebanon where it seemed to flop big-time at the box office. How trustworthy is this guy’s judgment that he should go unchallenged?
Here is another Israeli general’s moral argument for extrajudicial assassination:
“We face a tragic dilemma,” said Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, chief of military intelligence. “A terrorist is going to enter a restaurant and blow up 20 people. But if we blow up his car, three innocent people in the car will die. How do we explain it to ourselves?”
That’s all very nice. Except that the scenario is entirely out of date. The chosen weapon of Palestinian militants is no longer the suicide bomb. Rather, most energy seems to be directed toward the questionable tactic of raining Qassam rockets on southern Israel. So almost all recent targeted killings have been against rocket launching crews. Yadlin neglected to use this as his example because Qassams have caused very little damage to Israel and it just doesn’t make as compelling an argument.
This is one of my favorite sections from the argument which supposedly bolsters the image of Israeli intelligence as morally sensitive souls:
One morning in 2002, Yadlin recalled, he “woke up horrified” to learn that 15 Palestinian civilians had been killed in an operation. That afternoon, Yadlin called Asa Kasher, a philosophy professor, and began working on ethical guidelines for fighting terrorism. They also asked a mathematician to write a formula to determine acceptable civilian casualties per dead terrorist.
I find it amusing that Yadlin needed a philosophy professor to help him make this tactic ethically acceptable. As for the mathematician, that one literally made me belly laugh the first time I read it. It was a dark, bitter laugh by the way. But hey, the Israelis really do have such a formula. I kid you not:
How many civilian casualties were acceptable? The mathematician whom the military had enlisted had failed to produce a formula. Reisner, who had stipulated that targeted killing was legal “only if all is done to minimize civilian casualties,” served on a seven-member committee that also failed to agree on a standard they could use. The numbers the men had suggested averaged 3.14 civilian deaths per dead terrorist, Reisner recalled. If the civilians were children, the figure was smaller.
Israel has a cost-benefit analysis for an acceptable number of civilian deaths in its attacks. To me, this is the ultimate abuse of mathematics and statistics. How do you possibly with a straight face contend that there is an acceptable margin of error in these attacks??
Blumenfeld, in her ongoing attempt at cinematic storytelling, presents a good cop, bad cop relationship between Avi Dichter, head of the Mossad, and Moshe Yaalon, military chief of staff. Dichter is the bloodthirsty killer. Yaalon the general with a tormented conscience:
But for Yaalon, military chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, the Talmudic precept, “If he comes to kill you, kill him first,” conflicted with a Biblical commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”
You mean to tell me that Yaalon thinks about the Ten Commandments before he kills Palestinians? Gimme a break. I think this is a question of the reporter getting a bit overwrought in her prose style.
And in case, you didn’t catch the fact that Yaalon is the good guy in this piece, Blumenfeld writes:
“It’s the lives of Israelis on one hand, the lives of Palestinians on the other,” Yaalon said, balancing his palms like the scales of justice. He is a tall, balding man, with sloping shoulders, thick glasses and a taste for meditative poetry. As a youth, Yaalon joined the leftist kibbutz movement. Despite decades of fighting, he still seems startled by its viciousness.
“When I sign the orders,” he said, “my hand trembles.”
I’m touched. But you do have to give Yaalon credit in one sense. His successor as chief of staff, Dan Halutz, made a memorable comment when asked if he felt anything when he dropped a bomb on a Palestinian target. “Just a slight tremble of the wings (of the plane) is all,” was his reply. Israel seems to have transferred supreme military authority from a man with some conscience to one who has never been burdened by one.
In discussing the history of Israeli targeted assassinations, the Post writer interviews Ehud Barak about his experience as a IDF assassin. He again provides charmingly witty banter about his experience:
In 1973, in Beirut, wearing high heels and a woman’s wig, Barak helped gun down three of the terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. “I was a brunette, I had a strawberry blonde behind me,” Barak said, with a small smile.
This must be what passes for pleasant cocktail banter at parties in the Barak household. You get the feeling that he’s told the story a million times before and has that ‘small smile’ down pat.
And lest you think that this policy of extrajudicial murder was devised by some bloodthirsty Likud PM like Netanyahu or Sharon–not true. It comes to you thanks to that Labor paragon of peace: Barak. Seems he wanted to get some of that fun back in his life in 2000 and decided to go back to his Munich days and ways. This time he needed some legal cover to justify what he intended to do:
Barak…secretly asked Daniel Reisner, a legal adviser to Arab-Israeli peace talks, to determine whether targeted killings were legal. Reisner agonized for six weeks. “It was a feeling of — what on Earth has happened?” Reisner recalled. “Instead of two states living amicably side by side, I have to write opinions on how and when we kill each other.”
Yes, indeed. I’m sure he agonized. He knew what his client wanted and he provided it. Is there any doubt what he advised Barak despite all these tortured moral misgivings?
Reisner concluded it was legal, with six conditions: that arrest is impossible; that targets are combatants; that senior cabinet members approve each attack; that civilian casualties are minimized; that operations are limited to areas not under Israeli control; and that targets are identified as a future threat. Unlike prison sentences, targeted killing cannot be meted out as punishment for past behavior, Reisner said. In 2002, a military panel established that targeting cannot be for revenge, but only for deterrence.
Israel no longer seems to observe several of these criteria. The most glaring one is ensuring the “civilian casualties are minimized.” This past summer my blog has been full of IDF mistakes in Gaza in which scores of Palestinians have been killed in such incidents. In addition, now instead of killing masterminds of massive terror attacks the IDF kills guys running through the streets with rocket launchers which inflict almost no damage on their intended target. As for the other criteria, they sound laudable. But how much do you think they’re honored in the breach? And especially now that the IDF is run by a man who feels nothing more than a slight tremble of the wings when he orders a man’s death.
If Yaalon comes across as Hamlet in this story, Dichter comes across as Atilla the Hun. He has no remorse, no conscience. He’s there to get the job done and the job is killing them before they kill us (or at least how he views it):
…For Avi Dichter “After each success, the only thought is, ‘Okay, who’s next?’ We really have a bottleneck,” the former Shin Bet chief said. One time they completed a killing at 5:30 a.m. “I said, ‘What are we going to do for the rest of the day?’ Nothing limits Hamas attacks, except terrorists still prefer their heads attached to their shoulders. If the M-16 delivers the message, the F-16 delivers it better.”
Splendid. Do I hear ‘war criminal’ anyone?
Here Dichter reveals the profound limitations of his counter-terror world view:
For Dichter, “the barrel of terrorism has a bottom.” If you captured or killed enough terrorists, Dichter believed, the problem would be solved. “They deserved a bomb that would send the dream team to hell,” Dichter said. “I said, ‘If we miss this opportunity, more Israelis will die.’ “
The truth is that the barrel has no bottom. You can kill them by the barrel-full and it will not slow the process of terror down. And it certainly will not “solve” the problem though it may give you an short interval until the next terror leader emerges, who may be more dangerous, more lethal and more intransigent than the previous one.
But I regret to say that Yaalon’s perspective isn’t much more persuasive:
Yaalon disagreed: “We won’t get to the bottom of the barrel by killing terrorists. We’ll get there through education.
Is this the best that Hamlet can muster? ‘Educate’ your enemy and he will become your friend?
Blumenfeld presents as a core ethical argument in this incident the decision of how large a bomb to drop on the building where the meeting was occurring. Dichter argued for a larger payload and Yaalon for a smaller one to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties. Though how Yaalon could believe that dropping even a quarter ton bomb in a densely packed urban area would eliminate the possibility of civilian deaths–is beyond me.
In pondering the problem of civilian casualties, the Washington Post journalist presents the usual IDF statistics claiming it has improved its error rate over the years. But she does acknowledge a certain fall-off in that department with the murders of scores of Gaza civilians this year. But it all can be explained so neatly and tidily by the IDF, and believe me they will:
David Siegel, a government spokesman, said the air force launched three times as many targeted attacks in the first eight months of 2006 as it had in all of 2005, increasing the probability of mistakes.
I feel reassured, don’t you? It’s all a matter of statistics, not pilot or spotter error. And certainly not an error in the relying on the tactic in the first place.
Now let’s return to our Hamlet:
Only once, Yaalon said, did he knowingly authorize a hit that would also kill a noncombatant, the wife of Salah Shehada. Shehada helped found Hamas’s military wing, which had asserted responsibility for killing 16 soldiers and 220 Israeli civilians. In 2002, the air force dropped a one-ton bomb on his home. The blast also destroyed a neighboring house, which Yaalon said he had thought was empty. Fifteen civilians were killed, including nine children. It felt, Yaalon said, “like something heavy fell on my head.”
I’ll bet he did. Something else heavy may fall on him sometime in the future–a indictment by the International Criminal Court. But never fear, when our good general kills the innocent wife of a guerrilla, he can still stand himself in the morning when he looks in the mirror:
When Yaalon makes this kind of decision, he said, it must pass “the mirror test”: At the end of the day, will he be able to look at himself in the mirror?
For those of you sitting on the edge of your seat wanting to know how it comes out: they dropped the bomb and it missed. But discovering the thought process that went into this decision is unnerving:
Then an agent offered an intriguing piece of information. The house was three stories high. The curtains were closed on the third floor. Perhaps the Hamas leaders were meeting up there?
Gallant, the prime minister’s adviser, called Sharon with a revised battle plan from Yaalon: The air force could drop a smaller bomb — a quarter-ton — destroy only the third floor and spare the civilians next door.
You decide to drop a bomb on a particular floor of a building based on the supposition that closed curtains mean that people are meeting there? Are they kidding? I’m no intelligence maven, but this bit of “thinking” doesn’t pass my smell test. It’s no wonder they were wrong:
…The [Hamas] men were gathered on the ground floor of the house. The quarter-ton bomb destroyed only the third floor. Abu Ras’s wife and four children, on the second floor, survived. And the Hamas leadership was safe.
What lesson has Dapper Dan Halutz learned from all this? Drop a bigger bomb:
“I’d say we should have used the heaviest bomb to ensure this leadership would be eliminated, and to save Palestinian and Israeli lives.”
It’s arguable that such killing would save Israeli lives, but that it will save Palestinian lives?? Is the man out of his mind??