By Michael Kelly
Wednesday, August 29, 2001
Two weeks ago I wrote that Israel was in a war and that the only way for Israel to win was to fight the war on its terms — to “destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian forces that have declared war on Israel.” Dozens of readers wrote to denounce what they described as an immoral, racist and even genocidal call to kill Palestinians in general. Likewise, many writers described Israel’s use of force in the war to date as immoral. Let us take a second look.
A first question is whether Israel is in fact exercising restraint. Many writers scoffed at this, pointing out that Israel was employing warplanes, tanks and missiles in its fight. This is undeniable, but Israel is nevertheless, also undeniably, exercising restraint.
Israel possesses one of the great armies of the world; combined, the forces of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine do not amount to any sort of real army at all. If Israel chose to fully exercise its might, it could fairly quickly destroy the organized Palestinian forces, seize much of the Palestinian arms, expel the leadership of the Palestinian terrorist groups (indeed, if it wished, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority) and seal off Palestinian areas. Instead, Israel has used its planes, tanks and missiles only in a limited and targeted fashion. This is restraint.
The only way in which Israel has used lethal force with clear lethal intent is in the targeted killings of Palestinians identified by Israel as directly involved in attacks on Israelis. One such killing occurred Monday. Israeli helicopters fired missiles into a building in the West Bank city of El Bireh, killing Mustafa Zibri, known as Abu Ali Mustafa, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The building housing Mustafa’s offices also housed three Palestinian families, but reports indicated that no one other than Mustafa was killed or injured.
State Department spokesman Richard L. Boucher responded to the Israeli attack thusly: “Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence but are only inflaming an already volatile situation and making it much harder to restore calm.”
Is Boucher right? To put it another way, is Israel’s one, limited use of purposeful lethal force wrong? Is it counterproductive, even from Israel’s point of view (after all, no one claims that Israel does not want to “end the violence”)? Is it immoral?
Israel, to repeat, is engaged in a defensive war. Its enemy could stop the war by stopping its attacks on Israel. Instead, it forces the war on its terms, through bombings and other lethal attacks mostly aimed at noncombatant Israelis. Israel has responded (in terms of the use of lethal force) not on a wholesale basis but only with limited strikes — targeted killings.
What is the point of this policy? It is: (a) to discourage further attacks on Israelis by killing the relative few who have the skills to plan attacks and make bombs; (b) to disrupt the overall warmaking ability of the Palestinian forces by depriving those forces of their leadership, destroying their headquarters and disrupting their routines; (c) to avert specific imminent attacks by killing those engaged in their planning. In short, in the context of war, the point of Israel’s policy of targeted killings is to “end the violence.”
Is this a moral policy? As the Israeli writer Hillel Halkin cogently argued in a column in the Wall Street Journal this week, it is. Israel under attack can respond through means redundantly proven ineffectual, such as asking the Palestinian Authority to arrest the bomb-makers. Or it can respond by waging a brutal all-out war, including the use of disproportionate retaliation against the Palestinian population for any attacks on the Israeli population.
Or Israel can do as it has done — target only those individuals known to Israel to be personally and, in effect, professionally engaged in the business of attacking Israel. Which is the better — more moral — choice?
Israel at war has the right to wage war in return. It has the right, as I wrote, to “destroy, kill, capture and expel the armed Palestinian forces that have declared war on Israel.” This is adamantly not to say that Israel has the right to kill Palestinians in general, purposefully. Israel has never done that, and neither Israel nor its supporters have proposed that. Israel has not even attempted to wage proper war against the armed Palestinian forces in general. It has only, with restraint, sought to kill some of the leaders of those forces — forces openly warring against Israel.
Why — again in the context of war — is this not Israel’s right? Indeed, Israel’s duty?