Did Israel Misuse Targeted Killings? A Machiavellian Account: Part 1

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“A targeted killing is a state-level, intentionally focused operation using every resource that intelligence agencies and armed forces have at their disposal with the objective of forcefully and permanently eliminating specific individuals from armed conflict, or at the very least deterring them from partaking in armed hostilities.”

Armed Forces Journal, 2011

Israel claims it has the right to conduct Targeted Killings (TKs) as a mean to prevent imminent attacks by Palestinian militants. It argues that TKs are within the rules of war and, accordingly, they prevent and deter terrorist attacks by keeping militants on the run. In fact, analysts have suggested that in the process of withdrawing its troops from Palestinian territories, targeted warfare became a primary element of Israel’s strategy in dealing with terrorist threats beyond its sphere of jurisprudence. With more than 200 assaults on Palestinian terror suspects most of Israel‘s TKs were carried out during the second intifada – a period of intensified insurgency that began in 2000, following the IDF’s crackdown on Palestinian demonstrators in Jerusalem, and which subsided somewhat in 2005, after Sharon’s declaration of Israel‘s disengagement from the Gaza stripe.

Among analysts there is an intense debate over whether the use of TKs has served Israel‘s interests. While some conclude Israel’s constant utilisation of TKs during the second intifada succesfully impaired the Islamist Hamas’ operational capabilities, others argue that the killing of the group‘s spiritual and political leadership had a profoundly negative impact on Palestinian public opinion, and was therefore a strategic miscalculation. These experts allege Israels TKs have encouraged more Palestinians to join Hamas, thus perpetuating the mutually reinforcing cycle of terrorism and state repression. By instigating the martyrdom of its highly respected core leadership, it is suggested Israel bolstered the popularity of Hamas to an extent that undermined the position of precisely those moderate Palestinian forces that should have been strengthened for the sake of peace. Partially because “these assassinations increased the support for Hamas and portrayed Abbas as Israel’s accomplice“, Hamas won a land-slide victory during the Palestinian Municipal election. Since 2005 Hamas has held office in Gaza, making it difficult for Israel to defeat the group in the long-term.

This series gives a ’Machiavellian’ account of the role of TKs in Israel’s strategy against Hamas. Explained herein are the questions of when, why and to what extent TKs have been used against Hamas from its inception until the end of the second intifada, and how this has benefited Israel. Employing Realism as a theoretical framework, this series seeks to refute the claim that Israel had strategically misused TKs. Rather, it is herein argued that Israel used TKs tactically in order to deter and avenge Hamas attacks; appeal to the hardliners among its electorate; and divide the Palestinian resistance. And it was not until Israel had experienced a wave of deadly sucide bombings during the second intifada, that it adopted TKs as a constantly applied strategy to subdue the Islamists.

Ultimately, the series alleges that the decapitation strategy was without alternative as it impaired Hamas to such an extent that obviated the need for a continuous military occupation of the Gaza-strip. This highlights that the constant application of TKs during the second intifada had, firstly, deterred Hamas and thus reduced the frequency of attacks in the mid-term; and secondly, demoralized its remaining leadership to an extent that made it more inclined to negotiate a truce.

In conclusion, it matters little that these killings significantly increased support for the Islamist resistance. The strategy as a whole had undermined Hamas‘ capacity to conduct asymetric warfare, divided the Palestinian independence movement, and advanced the domestic interests of Israel‘s right-wing government.

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About Alex Beck 8 Articles
Alex is a history student from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is of German-Iranian descent and has written about foreign policy analysis and strategic studies.

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