Obama at Boston memorial 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Ready or not, Israel’s relatively free hands in conducting its war on terror may
finally be tied.
Since September 11, 2001, the United States’s much more
aggressive approach to combating terror has often provided Israel with a blanket
of immunity. Even as many groups and states criticized Israel for targeting
killings and for the death of civilians during military operations, the impact
of the criticism was always attenuated by Israel’s ability to quickly point out
examples of recent US targeted killings and of large civilian casualties in Iraq
There are many operations and strategies employed by
Israel that might have never been considered prior to the war on terror
initiated by the US. While Israel successfully defended the legality of its
actions in Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009) and prevented
subsequent war-crimes cases from going forward, it may very well have employed
less aggressive tactics in its operations in the era before the war on terror.
At that time, the US still categorically opposed targeted killings and was much
more conservative in its use of force in situations where there could be
The blanket of immunity may be gone as of President
Barack Obama’s speech
on Thursday, in which he essentially declared an (almost)
end to the war on terror, and reset US policy regarding targeted killings by
There are a number of fascinating aspects to the new, more
conservative US standards for targeted killings, but two salient ones are the
“continuing, imminent threat” standard and the standard requiring a “near
certainty” that civilians will not be hurt.
As commentators have pointed
out, “continuing” is almost by definition the opposite of “imminent.” The
inclusion of the word almost certainly indicates that Obama is still willing to
target terrorists off the battlefield, long before they intend to execute their
This standard is still more aggressive than the pre-9/11
mentality, which was wary of targeting terrorists if they were not on a
But the White House fact sheet on the matter also
specifically stated that “it is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a
continuing, imminent threat to US persons,” and Obama said that “not every
collection of thugs that labels themselves al- Qaida” threatens the
It is not entirely clear where this qualification positions the
goalposts, but it likely means that the US will not target enemies off the
battlefield anymore unless they are arch-terrorists (as opposed to the many
mid-level terrorists who the US has been hunting down in Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Yemen and elsewhere).
Could Obama’s new guidelines make it more difficult
for Israel to be aggressive against some Hamas and Hezbollah agents without more
clearly illustrating how credible a threat they are? Could merely proving their
membership in a terror organization no longer be sufficient? The “near
certainty” standard for avoiding civilian casualties is, on its face, a much
more conservative standard than the proportionality test required under
international law. Under international law, civilian casualties are legal in
cases when the collateral damage is not excessive in relation to the military
advantage afforded by the strike. This is not necessarily the most difficult
standard to meet, as long as you have a real target and there is no large group
of civilians nearby, which can usually be accomplished in a nighttime
In contrast, proving a “near certainty” that there are no
civilians in a given area could be nearly impossible.
often struck in urban environments where civilians are constantly moving around,
and it is difficult to know who is inside a building.
believe that the standards were put forward with loopholes or or in anticipation
of new situations, and that ultimately, Obama’s speech was largely an exercise
in public relations. But the bottom line of these two changes could be that the
US will generally refrain from targeted killings in urban environments, and will
be much less aggressive in general.
If so, Israel – which primarily
strikes terrorists in urban environments – will once again find itself alone in
its aggressive approach to fighting terror. That is not to say that Israel is
not willing to stick its neck out, as numerous foreign reports on Israeli
unilateral attacks on Iraq and Syria’s nuclear reactors and on Syrian weapons
convoys headed for Hezbollah have shown.
But it does mean that sometimes
Israel will likely self-censor or limit its actions, and that if and when it
doesn’t, it may face even harsher criticism than it has in the past 12 years.