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Retaliation for Me, But Not for Thee

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 18, 2002
Weekly Standard


QUESTION: What are the implications of the U.S. government's missile strike [on al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen] yesterday? . . . I'm sure many Israelis are wondering what the difference is between this and a targeted killing. And me, too. . . .

STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN RICHARD BOUCHER: Our policy on targeted killings in the Israeli-Palestinian context has not changed. . . .

QUESTION: What, so you have one rule for one conflict and another rule? . . .

BOUCHER: I think we all understand the situation with regard to Israeli-Palestinian issues and the prospects of peace and the prospects of negotiation and the prospects of the need to create an atmosphere for progress. A lot of different things come into play there.

--State Department briefing, November 5

TRULY, WHATEVER Richard Boucher is paid, it's not enough. His ability to advocate a nonsensical State Department line, with a straight face, time and again, is a credit to the diplomatic profession. Ever since the start of the Al Aksa Intifada in 2000, he has repeatedly condemned Israel's practice of killing terrorists and instead called for negotiations to settle the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. A typical comment came on March 8, 2002: "We've made clear that actions like targeted killings need to be halted now and always urged them to follow a path where security can be achieved for both sides through their cooperation."

A very laudable sentiment, except it raises some obvious questions: How is Israel supposed to defend itself if it can't kill the people who are killing its citizens? And how would the United States react if it faced a terrorist threat of similar magnitude?

The answer to the latter question came last week when a Predator drone over Yemen used a Hellfire missile to incinerate a car carrying Qaed Salim Senyan al-Harthi and five other suspected al Qaeda members. Unlike previous attacks in Afghanistan, this one occurred far from a conventional battlefield. But nobody at the State Department suggested that it disrupted the "prospects of peace" with al Qaeda, or that it impaired America's ability to "create an atmosphere for progress" in dealing with these murderous thugs. The only official to voice such sentiments was, no surprise, the foreign minister of Sweden, who condemned the CIA strike as "a summary execution that violates human rights." "Even terrorists," Anna Lindh explained, unctuously, "must be treated according to international law."

The risible Swedish response was almost universally ignored, as it should have been. Everyone— at least everyone outside Western Europe— understands that America is locked in a battle to the death with al Qaeda. The opportunity to arrest terrorists does not always exist; sometimes they must simply be eliminated. That does not make such strikes "assassinations" or "murders" any more than the killing of enemy soldiers would be. In fact there is no difference between the two situations; America is at war right now. Since international law permits the killing of enemy combatants, the United States was acting lawfully when it blasted al-Harthi and company.

So, too, Israel is in the right when it targets terrorists. Between the beginning of the Al Aksa Intifada on September 30, 2000, and September 1, 2002, more than 415 Israeli civilians were murdered and more than 2,000 maimed or injured (figures that don't include soldiers killed, many while engaged in peaceful pursuits). Israel's total population is only 6 million (a symbolic figure, that). If a similar proportion of America's population had been killed, we would have lost more than 19,000 people— the equivalent of six September 11's.

Apologists for Palestinian terror argue that suicide bombings targeting bus stops and cafés are justified because the Palestinians have no alternative means to achieve their political goals. This specious rationale— which ignores Israel's willingness, at Camp David in 2000, to grant practically all of the Palestinians' territorial demands— was exploded in an important report issued last week by Human Rights Watch, hardly a bastion of Israeli apologists.

The Geneva Convention states that the "civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack"— no matter what the rationale. By violating this injunction, Human Rights Watch wrote, the Palestinians had committed "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity." The terror attacks have not been carried out directly by the Palestinian Authority, but, the report found, Yasser Arafat bears "a high degree of responsibility for what occurred" by doing nothing to stop the terrorists and, even, in some instances, providing cash stipends to them.

This is not to suggest that Human Rights Watch has suddenly come out for bumping off terrorist masterminds. Like other human rights organizations, it has dutifully condemned Israel's resort to "extra-judicial killings." But, really, what choice does Israel have? It could try asking Arafat to arrest terrorists, as it has many times, to no avail. It could try arresting the terrorists itself, as it sometimes does, but that puts Israeli soldiers' lives at risk, and might not work anyway with suicidal maniacs. So Israel resorts to snipers, missiles, and the occasional exploding car or cell phone.

At all times, Israel takes great care to minimize the harm to civilians. Sometimes accidents occur, as on July 23, when an Israeli F-16 dropped a 2,000 pound, laser-guided bomb on a Gaza house where Hamas commander Salah Shehada was hiding. Shehada was killed but so were 14 others, including 9 children. This led to what the Guardian gloatingly called "searing international criticism" of Israel, but such is the cruel nature of war.

As long as Israel does not deliberately target civilians (which it does not) and as long as it takes reasonable care to minimize collateral damage (which it does), then it is acting well within the bounds of international law. It's nice if you can catch the bad guys in the middle of a desert, as America did last week in Yemen. But terrorists often hide among civilians precisely because they know that— unlike them— Americans or Israelis shrink from slaughtering innocents, even inadvertently. The ultimate blame for any casualties that result must therefore rest with the terrorists, since by sheltering among civilians they are violating the laws of war.

This is precisely the position we take in our own war on terror: The loss of hundreds of civilian lives in Afghanistan in no way invalidates the moral righteousness of the anti-Taliban campaign. Washington is willing to cut similar slack to other countries engaged in fighting terrorism, even Russia, which has been guilty of undoubted atrocities in Chechnya.

Israel is held to a uniquely high standard. It must watch its children being blown into blood-spattered fragments, and then sit down and share tea and baklava with the murderers. To do otherwise sabotages the prospects of long-term peace. Or so world opinion has it. The record suggests otherwise.

Suicide bombings in Israel peaked in March 2002, when at least 80 Israeli civilians were killed and 420 injured in 12 attacks. The Israel Defense Forces then occupied six West Bank cities. After the IDF pulled out in early May, suicide bombings resumed, leading to Israeli reoccupation of seven of eight major West Bank cities in June. The conventional wisdom was that this tough response would only further inflame the situation. It's true that the occupation did not end all suicide attacks, but it did dramatically diminish them.

Israeli leaders have never claimed that targeted killings would end the threat overnight; they have argued that it would reduce the danger over the long term, and the evidence so far supports that contention. Only when the Palestinians have been beaten militarily will they come to see the futility of violence and reach a modus vivendi with the Jews next door. Any attempt to short-circuit the process, as Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak tried to do, will only prolong the bloodshed.

Yet to judge from Richard Boucher's comments, the State Department remains convinced that if only Israel would stop shooting back, peace would somehow break out. It is hard to believe this naive faith could survive the failure of the Oslo "peace process." It is even harder to believe that it has survived more than a year after 9/11.

Max Boot, a Weekly Standard contributing editor, is the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

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