How Israel Won a War but Paid a High Moral Price

A decade of targeted assassinations has pushed the boundaries of Israel's laws and military ethics — and harmed its image across the globe.

On May 18, 2001, a Hamas operative wearing a long dark blue coat came to the security checkpoint outside the HaSharon Mall, near the northern Israeli city of Netanya. He aroused the suspicion of the guards, who stopped him from entering, and then blew himself up, killing five bystanders. On June 1, another suicide bomber killed 21 people, most of them young Jewish immigrants from Russia, standing in line outside a discotheque on a beach in Tel Aviv. The owner of the dance hall, Shlomo Cohen, had served as a naval commando, “but this was the worst thing I had seen in my life,” he said, with despair in his eyes.

By early November, suicide bombers were striking in the streets of Israel almost every week and sometimes every few days. On Dec. 1, three bombers in succession killed 11 people in Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. The next day, a man from Nablus blew himself up on a bus in Haifa, killing 15 and wounding 40.

The offensive did not stop. In March 2002 alone, 138 men, women, and children were killed by suicide bombers, and 683 were wounded. The most atrocious of the attacks occurred on Passover, on the ground floor of the Park Hotel in Netanya, where a Seder banquet was being held for 250 of the city’s poor. A suicide bomber disguised as a religious Jewish woman entered the hall and blew himself up, killing 30 people — the youngest aged 20 and the oldest 90 — and wounding 143 others. George Jacobovitz, a Hungarian-born Nazi death camp survivor, was among the dead.

2002 was, according to Avi Dichter, the head of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet at the time, “the worst year for terror attacks against us since the establishment of the state.”

The Israeli intelligence community had come across suicide bombers before, but it had no solution for it. “What can you do against a suicide bomber when he’s already walking around in your streets looking for somewhere to blow himself up?” said Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, the head of the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure.

Terrorism in general, and suicide attacks in particular, created a strange and frustrating situation within the Shin Bet and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They generally knew who was behind an attack but could not get to him deep inside Palestinian-controlled territory. “There was a sense of impotence,” said Giora Eiland, the head of the IDF’s Planning Directorate at the time.

Dichter, the Shin Bet director, had already presented a new strategy to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a series of meetings toward the end of 2001. At first, the ministers were hesitant. But at a meeting after the Haifa bus terrorist attack, Sharon whispered to Dichter, “Go for it. Kill them all.”

Since picking off individual bombers was ineffectual, Dichter decided to shift focus. Starting at the end of 2001, Israel would target the “ticking infrastructure” behind the attacks. The person who blew himself up or planted the bomb or pulled the trigger was, after all, usually just the last link in a long chain. There were recruiters, couriers, and weapons procurers, as well as people who maintained safe houses and smuggled money. They would all be targets.

Above: Israeli emergency workers search through the bombed out interior of the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, on March 27, 2002, during Passover. (Scott Nelson/Getty Images); Top: A Palestinian boy holds plastic flowers as he plays on the rubble of assassinated former Hamas interior minister Said Siam's apartment building during a Hamas rally in Jabalia on Jan. 20, 2009. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

The Israeli security forces did not hold back. Targeted killing operations killed 84 people in 2001, 101 in 2002, and 135 in 2003. Unlike sporadic killings abroad by Mossad, Israel’s chief intelligence agency, it wasn’t possible — or plausible — for the country to deny that it was behind the assassinations.

Criticism of the targeted killings inside and outside Israel also made it necessary to justify each one, disclosing details of the victims’ misdeeds to establish that it had sufficient cause to respond. Gradually, what had once been considered highly damaging — acknowledging responsibility for an assassination — became official policy.

The IDF began putting out statements after each hit. Simultaneously, the Shin Bet, which had previously been reluctant to talk to the media, distributed excerpts of the relevant “red page” — summaries of material about a dead terrorist’s actions — to various news outlets. Israel was completely rearranging its communications policy — fighting, in effect, a propaganda war.

Explaining, even highlighting, what had long been state secrets required new language and new euphemisms. The deaths of innocent civilians during an assassination operation became known as nezek agavi — “accidental damage.” The words “assassination” or “elimination” or, perish the thought, “murder” were seen as inappropriate, said a senior official in the prime minister’s office. Finally, they picked the term sikul memukad — Hebrew for “targeted preventive acts.”

Although these euphemisms may have been helpful for public relations, it was not at all clear whether Israel’s new targeted killing campaign was legal. Not surprisingly, some of the families of the assassinated Palestinians and victims of “accidental damage” didn’t believe so. They enlisted the help of human rights associations and experienced Israeli attorneys to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

More surprisingly, the previous head of the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon, whose overhaul of the intelligence and operational systems had al­lowed the new assassination program to begin, agreed with the dissenters. He argued that the Shin Bet was killing people without first considering relevant political and international events and that they failed to understand when an assassination would quell the flames of conflict and when it would fan them.

On July 31, 2001, an IDF helicopter fired several missiles into the office of Jamal Mansour, a member of the political arm of Hamas and a student leader at Al-Najah University in Nablus, in the West Bank. He was killed, together with one of his helpers and six other Palestinian civilians, including two children. Ayalon called the Shin Bet command and asked a top-level official there if he had gone insane. “Why, this man just two weeks ago came out with a statement saying that he supported a halt to terror attacks and that the peace process should be given a chance!” The official replied that they were not aware of such a statement. “What does that mean, you ‘aren’t aware’?” Ayalon fumed. “All the Palestinian newspapers covered it! The whole world is aware!”

“I call it the banality of evil,” Ayalon later told me, channeling Hannah Arendt. “You get used to killing. Human life becomes something plain, easy to dispose of. You spend a quarter of an hour, 20 minutes, on who to kill. On how to kill him: two, three days. You’re dealing with tactics, not the implications.”

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, center, looks on as outgoing head of Israel's General Security Services Avi Dichter shakes hands with his replacement Yuval Diskin during a ceremony on May 15, 2005, in Jerusalem. (Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images)

Israel had not given full consideration to the moral implications of the new program, but it was fully aware that it needed to provide legal cover for officers and subordinates who might later face prosecution, either in Israel or abroad. As early as December 2000, IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz summoned the chief of the Military Advocate General’s Corps, Menachem Finkelstein, and asked him: “In the current legal situation, is it permitted for Israel to openly kill defined individuals who are involved in terrorism? Is it legal or illegal?” Finkelstein was stunned. “Do you realize what you are asking me?” he replied. “That the IDF’s advocate general will tell you when you can kill people without a trial?”

On Jan. 18, 2001, a top-secret legal opinion signed by Finkelstein was submitted to the prime minister, the attorney general, the chief of staff and his deputy, and the Shin Bet director. The document opened with this statement: “We have for the first time set out to analyze the question of the legality of the initiated interdiction” — another euphemism — “We have been told by IDF and Shin Bet that such actions are carried out in order to save the lives of Israeli civilians and members of the security forces. This is, therefore, in principle, an activity that leans on the moral basis of the rules concerning self-defense, a case of the Talmudic commandment: ‘He who comes to kill you, rise up early and kill him first.’”

For the first time, a legal instrument had been proposed for en­dorsing extrajudicial execution.

For Finkelstein, a religious man, it was a difficult moment. He was painfully aware that God prevented King David from building the temple because he had too much blood on his hands. Finkelstein, who is now a district judge, wondered if he would be punished one day. “I submitted the opinion with trembling hands,” he told me. “It was clear that this was not a theoretical matter and that they were going to make use of it.”

The opinion fundamentally recalibrated the legal relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. No longer was the conflict a matter of law enforcement — of police arresting suspects so that they can face trial. The opinion posited a new kind of participant in armed conflict: the “illegal combatant” who takes part in armed operations but is not a soldier in the full sense of the word. The term covered anyone active in a terrorist organization, even if his activity was marginal. As long as he is an active member in the organization, he could be considered a combatant — even when asleep in his bed.

The 9/11 attacks muted public criticism of Israeli counterterrorism practices. The very system internationally condemned only weeks earlier was now touted as a model to be copied. “The attacks on 9/11 gave our own war absolute international legitimacy,” Yuval Diskin, a former Shin Bet chief, said. “We were able to completely untie the ropes that had bound us.”

Before the eruption of the Second Intifada, targeted killings had been primarily the secret business of small compartmentalized teams working for Mossad far from the borders of the country. Any moral reckoning was confined to a handful of operatives and government ministers. Once those operations were developed into a large-scale killing machine, however, thousands of people became complicit. IDF soldiers and airmen, Shin Bet personnel, the people who collected and filtered and analyzed and disseminated intelligence — they were all involved, often in more important ways than those who did the actual killing. And by the summer of 2002, no Israeli could claim ignorance of what was being done in his or her name. It was only a matter of time before the security services went too far and violated the legal constraints Finkelstein had placed on them.

Israeli police officers walk near a body, left, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteers collect victims’ blood and body parts for burial at the scene of one of two Palestinian suicide bombings on Jan. 5, 2003, in Tel Aviv. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Amir was a network intelligence officer, or NIO — a bright young man assigned to Unit 8200, one of the most prestigious outfits in the IDF. He worked, like all NIOs, at a base protected by reinforced concrete, monitoring information. Soldiers like Amir had to decide, for example, whether the speaker in an intercepted conversation was a storekeeper ordering merchandise or a jihadi delivering coded instructions to prepare a bomb. If he made a mistake, innocent people — Israelis on one side, a hapless shop owner on the other — could die.

Officially, Amir and his colleagues at Unit 8200’s Turban base were responsible for stopping terrorist attacks. Unofficially, they were deciding whom Israel killed.

Often, Unit 8200 also picked out buildings to bomb. The bombings were a way to send a message to the Palestinians but also simply a way for Israel’s leaders and soldiers to express their frustration and anger.

On Jan. 5, 2003, two suicide bombers from Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades slipped into Tel Aviv and made their way toward the old central bus station. At 6:26 p.m., they blew themselves up near downtown, killing 23 people. Many were babies or children. The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and promised to make every effort to apprehend the men who had planned it. The Israelis were not convinced. After all, the bombers came from an organization affiliated with Fatah, which was under Yasser Arafat’s command.

Following that meeting, less than three hours after the attack, the then IDF chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, decided to bomb Target 7068, the code name for the Fatah branch office in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis. Unlike in the past, this time there would be no warning, and the attack would not come at night.

According to the intelligence available to Unit 8200, the office had no connection to terrorist activities. No activity connected to terrorism took place there, according to Amir, just office work and paying out welfare and salaries. “It was the Gaza Strip equivalent of a labor union local,” Amir said.

Early the next morning, Amir, who assumed the operation would be just another symbolic strike on an empty building, told military intelligence that no one was in the building and that it was safe to start the bombardment. “It’s on hold,” he was told by a representative of the Targets Department. “They’re waiting for the office to open.”

“What? Who are they expecting?” he asked.

“No one. It’s not a particular person; just anyone. Let us know when someone goes inside.”

He thought it was a misunderstanding. The presence of civilians in a building was a reason to stand down, not to strike. According to the IDF’s Code of Ethics, soldiers are required to “prevent unnecessary harm to human life and limb” and to “disavow manifestly illegal orders.” Bombing a building inhabited by people with no combat role — bureaucrats, cleaners, secretaries — flew in the face of that code and Finkelstein’s 2001 legal memo. Targeting civilians, in fact, was an outright war crime.

But there was no misunderstanding. The Targets Department issued a written order so that everyone understood that they were waiting for an “indication” that the building was occupied — in other words, a phone call. Amir’s unit was told not to wait for the speaker to identify himself or for a conversation of any value to take place. Put simply, the intention was simply to kill someone — anyone.

Amir raised the matter with the senior NIO and with the command of Unit 8200. The command said they “understood there was a problem,” and the operation was put on hold. “That satisfied me, and I could go back to my post, which I had closed down, at about 2 a.m., with the sense that the story was behind us.”

However, the next morning, when he sat down to work, he got a call from the Targets Department notifying him that the bombing of the Fatah branch in Khan Yunis was about to begin. Amir objected, but the officer on the other end of the line got angry.

“Why does it seem manifestly illegal to you? They’re all Arabs. They’re all terrorists.”

“In my unit,” Amir told him, “we make a very clear distinction between terrorists and those who were not involved, such as people who routinely used the target building.”

But by then the operation was already in motion. Two armed F-16 fighter jets were circling over the Mediterranean, waiting for the order. A drone was photographing the building from a distance. As soon as Amir told them someone was in the building, two Hellfire missiles would be launched. Amir decided he would refuse to cooperate.

Impatient calls started coming in to 8200 command from the air force and military intelligence. The operational order required the bombardment to be completed by 11:30 a.m., when children would be emptying into a nearby schoolyard. “This is a manifestly illegal order, and I do not intend to obey it,” Amir told them. “The fact that the commander has declared it to be legal doesn’t make it legal.”

A few minutes later, one of Amir’s soldiers told him that phone calls were being made inside the Fatah building. A man was dealing with wage payments, trying to get money to some employees, despite the hard times in the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing war. A secretary was gossiping about a local gigolo.

That was the go signal. The F-16 could fire. Israel could kill them both. Amir sat in his chair as the on-duty NIO. “A certain serenity came over me,” he recalled. “I felt that there was only one right thing to do. It was clear to me that this operation should not go forward, that it crossed a red line, that it was a manifestly illegal order … and that it was my responsibility, as a soldier and a human being, to refuse to carry it out.”

That evening, the 8200 command sent an urgent message to the head of military intelligence, expressing grave reservations about the operation. It was transmitted to the minister of defense, who ordered the cancellation of the attack.

This was a clear vindication of Amir’s moral stand, but it was too late to silence the storm that the “mutiny in 8200” had unleashed. Unit 8200’s command came under heavy fire from all sides of the defense establishment — even Prime Minister Sharon let it be known that he took a very dim view of what had transpired. The head of the unit, Brig. Gen. Yair Cohen, was summoned to an IDF General Staff meeting devoted entirely to Amir. He should face a court-martial, the officers argued, and go to jail for at least six months. One general went further: “That officer should have been convicted of treason and put in front of a firing squad.”

The military and intelligence establishments were concerned that Amir could be the first of many soldiers to refuse to carry out orders. From the commanders’ perspective, putting down a Palestinian uprising didn’t leave a lot of room for squishy liberal objectors.

Amir’s contention that what amounted to an order to murder civilians was manifestly illegal was rejected out of hand by the military. Professor Asa Kasher, a philosopher and the author of the IDF’s Code of Ethics, was invited by the commander of 8200 to discuss the issue. He believed that Amir’s actions were morally incorrect. “I could not under any circumstances endorse the act of the NIO,” Kasher said. “In the situation that prevailed there, when he was an NIO at a distant base, he lacked the moral authority to determine that the order was manifestly illegal.” Amir was quietly discharged without being indicted, preventing the courts from having an opportunity to determine whether the order to murder civilians had been legal.

The operation in Khan Yunis had clearly violated the guidelines set by the IDF military advocate general — that the target for elimination must be an individual directly linked to terrorism. But that wasn’t the only guideline that was now being breached regularly. There was one that called for an investigation each time innocent civilians were killed along with the target. Another dictated that there should be no killings when there was a “reasonable arrest alternative” — when the terrorist could be detained without endangering the lives of soldiers or civilians. Alon Kastiel, a soldier in the intelligence section of the Duvdevan, or “cherry,” unit (on which the popular Israeli TV series Fauda is based), told me: “Everything about my military service changed after the outbreak of the intifada. Before that, we made very great efforts to capture wanted men alive. After the outbreak, this modus operandi ended. It was clear that we were out to kill.”

Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin attends the funeral of senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab and his bodyguards at the Great Mosque of Gaza on August 22, 2003, in the Gaza Strip. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)

By the summer of 2002, the Shin Bet and its partners were able to stop more than 80 percent of attacks before they turned deadly. The targeted killings were clearly saving lives. But there was a disturbing trend in the data, too: The number of attempted attacks was increasing. Rather than wearing down Hamas and other terrorist groups, the assassinations were spawning more and more attackers.

On Jan. 14, 2004, a 21-year-old woman from the Gaza Strip tried to enter into Israel at the Erez Crossing. She had to pass through a metal detector, like all Palestinians. There was a high, pinging beep when she went through the detector. “Platin, platin,” she told the border guards, pointing at her leg — a platinum implant. The guards sent her through again and then a third time. The detector kept beeping. A female guard was summoned to frisk her. She then detonated a bomb that killed four examiners and wounded 10 others.

The woman’s name was Reem Saleh Riyashi. She had two children, one 3 years old, the other only 18 months. A day later, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin called a press conference at the home of one of his followers. He sat in his wheelchair, wrapped in a brown blanket. He was smiling. “For the first time,” he said, “we have used a woman fighter instead of a man. This is a new development in the struggle against the enemy.” The sheikh, who in the past had issued several fatwas (religious edicts) against the use of female suicide bombers, said he had changed his mind. “The holy war obligates all Muslims, men and women. This is proof that the resistance will continue until the enemy is driven out of our homeland.” It was enough for the Israeli government to put Yassin on the target list.

In public appearances, Ariel Sharon also dropped hints that he now saw Yassin as a target. This only led to a tightening of the security around the Hamas leader. He stayed indoors, emerging only to visit a local mosque and his sister’s home, both of which were near his house. He moved between the three points in two vans, one equipped with a lift for Yassin’s wheelchair and a second for his armed bodyguards. His life was confined to this triangle, and he and his underlings assumed that Israel wouldn’t dare strike at any of its vertices — each of which was crowded with women, children, and innocent civilians.

But there were spaces in between those three points. On the evening of March 21, Yassin was driven to prayers at the mosque, with his bodyguards following in their van.

Shaul Mofaz, now defense minister, ordered that both vehicles be destroyed on their way back. There were choppers in the air and drones buzzing overhead, and Yassin’s son, Abdul Hamid, had been around long enough to sense the danger. He raced to the mosque.

“Father, do not leave here,” he warned. “They will not attack a mosque.”

The sheikh and his bodyguards decided to be cautious and remained in the mosque.

Hours went by. After the dawn prayers, Yassin wanted to go home. “Helicopters could not be heard above,” his son said. “Every­one was sure the danger had passed.”

The trackers were still there, of course, and the drones were still watching through thermal imaging cameras. People came out the front door, moving quickly past the parked vans, pushing a wheelchair.

Mofaz requested to speak to the Apache pilot, asking him if he could clearly see the wheelchair and whether he could hit it.

“I see them very clearly,” the pilot said. “I can take them out.”

On the video feed, there was a flash and then a fraction of a second of blank screen. Then parts of the wheelchair flew in all directions, one wheel soaring upward and landing outside the frame, and people lying or crawling on the ground.

Palestinians carry the coffin of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin during his funeral on March 22, 2004 in the Gaza Strip. (Getty Images)

The attack on Yassin eliminated Hamas’s most prominent leader; it also killed his bodyguards and injured his son. Soon after taking out Yassin, Israel killed his successor, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, and two aides by firing a single missile at his Subaru on a crowded street. Within weeks, Egypt had brokered a cease-fire with Hamas. Thanks to its streamlined targeted killing apparatus and the decisive leadership of Ariel Sharon, Israel proved that a murderous and seemingly uncompromising terrorist network could be brought to its knees by eliminating its operational commanders and its leadership.

The use of targeted killings, however, came with heavy costs. The price was paid, first and foremost, by the innocent Palestinians who became the “coincidental damage” of the assassinations. Hundreds of civilians were killed, and thousands, including many children, were wounded and left disabled for life.

As a high-ranking Shin Bet officer told me, “In the past, when it was all secret and of dubious legality, we could carry out very few hits.” The only question was how many could be done without getting exposed. “The minute the IDF advocate general made these actions kosher, legal, and overt, we opened up an assembly line for assassinations,” he added. “So now our consciences are cleaner, but a lot more folks ended up dead.”

With the ability to kill at their fingertips, Israeli leaders frequently opted for force before diplomacy. The targeted killing campaign may have been a tactical victory, but it was a strategic defeat that further marginalized and delegitimized Israel in the eyes of the world.

David was once again behaving like Goliath.

The excerpt was adapted from Ronen Bergman’s new book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.

Ronen Bergman is the senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. (@ronenbergman)