Prime Minister Yair Lapid chose his words carefully when characterizing the recent killing of a senior Islamic Jihad commander, Tayseer al-Jabari, during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Thursday. He described the incident as a “targeted assassination” aimed at pre-empting an anti-tank missile attack against Israeli civilians.
Lapid states his preference for law enforcement: “Everyone who needs to be arrested, will be arrested.” He also justified security measures: “Any attempt to harm civilians or soldiers will be met with a harsh response.”
The air strike against Jabari was a targeted killing, which international law views differently than extrajudicial execution or political assassination. The Fourth Geneva Convention and the 1977 First Additional Protocol allow targeted killings when an attack is imminent, and all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted.
Extra-judicial execution and political assassination, on the other hand, are forbidden under international law; US statutes also forbid them. Targeted killings fall under a separate legal category when they are used for self-defense or to prevent the killing of civilians.
The Laws of War allow targeted killings when there is no chance to prevent an attack by, for example, arresting the perpetrator. Both in law and practice, targeted killings are different from random violence, the goal of which is to inspire fear and intimidate non-combatants.
The distinction between “armed combatants” and “civilians” is also relevant. The former are legitimate military targets because they take part in hostilities. When, for example, a civilian suicide bomber dons an explosive vest, he or she becomes an armed combatant and a legitimate target. Jabari was a legitimate target because he provided infrastructure, expertise and coordination, enabling terrorist attacks. Individuals lose their protected status when they espouse violence or take part in hostilities.
Words matter. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as an “organized armed group” involved in an “international armed conflict,” possesses the prerequisite criteria. It is a military force under political command; it controls territory and persons living in that territory. In the case of Jabari, who was involved in an operation to kill Israelis, the strike was a legitimate act of self-defense.
The severity of the situation
Targeted killings must not be undertaken frivolously: They risk escalating conflict. While it may eliminate an individual, it never neutralizes the cause that the individual championed. On the contrary, targeted killings lead to intensified fervor and zealotry, and others stand ready to replace those who have fallen.
To avoid escalation, the targeted killing must avoid collateral damage or make it proportional to the harm intended by the perpetrator. Such killings risk exacerbating insecurity when harm to innocent civilians is excessive or when killings, undertaken as a consistent state policy, inspire new recruits to replace those who have been killed. They may deal with the immediate threat, but they also increase the number of one’s enemies and their desire to do harm.
Targeted killings should be undertaken only under dire circumstances when no other option exists and when there is clear evidence that it will successfully prevent an attack. To do otherwise increases insecurity and is counterproductive. Decision makers must consider whether the short-term benefits of a targeted killing actually enhance overall security or whether it is counterproductive, fueling a cycle of violence and revenge.
Israel’s military action was a preemptive airstrike on Tayseer al-Jabari and two anti-tank squads, which were about to carry out an attack. Israel tracked their movements for several days before conducting the air strike, as they approached the Gaza security perimeter.
Air strikes will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They can, however, prevent armed operations from killing civilians. Dialogue and political talks are the only way to achieve sustainable peace, ending the cycle of deadly violence.
The writer is director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department during the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He is author of From Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition.