Targeted killings, then & now

More effective counterterrorism measures exist, but the international community still won't cooperate.

By
March 1, 2006 21:49
4 minute read.
Targeted killings, then & now

Islamid Jihad 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

 
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It is a pity that Steven Spielberg did not read certain Nixon administration papers before making his film Munich. It might have helped him to understand why Israel decided to track down and kill the terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics - and why "targeted killings" are still a major part of Israel's counterterrorism repertoire today. According to the documents, which were declassified last summer, president Nixon was outraged by the Olympics attack and initially proposed both a strong, practical response - cutting off economic support to "any nation that harbors or gives sanctuary to these international outlaws" - and various symbolic gestures, including flying to Israel to personally attend the athletes' funerals. However, his aides, and particularly then national security adviser Henry Kissinger, quickly talked him out of these ideas. Kissinger proposed instead that the US "go to the UN and see whether we can get some international rules on harboring guerrillas and so forth." As his deputy, Alexander Haig, noted in a memo, Kissinger acknowledged "that no resolution would be likely to pass," in part because China would probably veto. Then secretary of state William Rogers also informed Nixon "that it would be impossible to get any kind of [UN] action." Kissinger explained: "This was true, but it would serve as a deterrent to Israeli action." In other words, Kissinger wanted the US both to refrain from taking any meaningful action against anti-Israel terrorism itself, and to restrain Israel from taking such action by placating it with deliberately empty gestures. And he ultimately persuaded Nixon to adopt this course. THIS, IT must be stressed, was the response not of an enemy, but of Israel's best friend - as became clear during the Yom Kippur War a year later, when invading Arab armies nearly wiped Israel off the map. Desperate for arms, Israel pleaded with its so-called allies, and Nixon responded with an airlift that ultimately helped Israel to win the war. The Europeans, in contrast, would not even allow the arms-bearing American planes to land in their countries for refueling. Indeed, Kissinger understood that even empty gestures over Munich would be too much for Europe. He therefore suggested that Nixon issue a statement saying that he had "consulted with other governments" on the UN idea, but warned: "Frankly, I wouldn't consult because if you do it, they'll say no." In short, Kissinger's empty gesture represented the maximum that Jerusalem could expect from the international community. Thus Israel had to fall back on whatever counterterrorism measures it could implement on its own, without international assistance. And targeted killings are one of these. OPPONENTS of this tactic, such as Spielberg, argue that assassinations cannot end terrorism and are therefore just petty revenge. That, however, is only half true. Targeted killings are indeed unlikely to end terrorism, since new terrorists can usually be found to replace those who are killed. But by disrupting terrorist networks they can significantly reduce the number of successful attacks. First, whenever a senior terrorist is killed, the network must find a replacement and reorganize itself accordingly. That takes time, during which its normal operations are suspended. Second, if senior terrorists know that Israel is hunting them, they are forced to devote more time and effort to protecting themselves, which reduces the amount of time and effort they are able to devote to organizing terror attacks. And third, when senior terrorists are afraid to operate openly, the chain of command of necessity becomes longer and more convoluted, thereby providing more opportunities for Israeli intelligence to penetrate the network and learn about planned attacks. That such disruptions can indeed reduce the volume of successful attacks is amply demonstrated by the statistics of the last five years. Since April 2002, when Israel started actively fighting Palestinian terror, the number of Israelis killed in Palestinian attacks has dropped by almost 50 percent every year. This decline is obviously not due solely to targeted killings, since Israel also employs other tactics. However, assassinations are an important part of Israel's arsenal. TODAY, AS then, Israel would gladly exchange such killings for Nixon's original idea - cutting off economic aid to "any nation that harbors or gives sanctuary to these international outlaws" - because that is the most effective anti-terrorist tactic of all. Given money, arms and sanctuary from an independent state or quasi-state (the Palestinian Authority has effectively filled this role ever since its establishment), terrorist organizations can sustain themselves almost indefinitely. But without such support, they can be eradicated relatively easily; this is precisely what happened to European groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Pressuring other countries to end their support for anti-Israel terrorism, however, is not something Israel can do on its own; it would require a concerted effort by the international community. And such an effort is no more feasible today than it was after Munich, 34 years ago. The UN still cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism. The European Union actually increased financial support for the PA after the intifada began, even when Yasser Arafat was directly implicated (in the Karine-A affair) in smuggling arms whose sole possible use was in attacks against Israel; it has similarly refused to cut economic ties with Iran despite that nation's well-documented financial support for anti-Israel terror and its president's open threats to "wipe Israel off the map." And liberal Protestant churches have not only continued supporting the PA; they are divesting from Israel, to boot. Thus Israel is still forced to make do with less effective measures that can be implemented without outside assistance. But when a single successful suicide bombing can kill dozens of people, even reducing the number of successful attacks can save hundreds of lives every year. That is why Israel has been assassinating terrorists for over 30 years - and why it will continue to do so for as long as the international community refuses to cooperate in more effective counterterrorism measures.

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