Critics of Sheikh Yassin Killing Reveal Own Moral Blindness

By Alan M. Dershowitz

Published March 26, 2004, issue of March 26, 2004.
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Israel’s targeted killing of the wheelchair-bound head of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, predictably has drawn a hail of criticism from the international community. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw characterized the killing of Yassin as “unlawful”; the Vatican said it was “not justified in any state [run by] the rule of law” and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared the killing to be “contrary to international law.” Even the United States, which initially refused to condemn the attack because its own policy favors targeted killings of top Al Qaeda leaders, succumbed to European pressure and criticized Israel.

Critics who accuse Israel of acting unlawfully could not be more wrong. The killing of Sheikh Yassin was a moral and lawful instance of preemptive self-defense. Sheikh Yassin was a combatant under any reasonable definition of that term, and combatants — including leaders — are appropriate military targets during an ongoing war of the kind Hamas has declared against Israel.

From his wheelchair, this blind bigot gave advance approval to acts of terrorism directed against Israeli civilians and Jews. Most recently, when Israel killed three Hamas militants who were on their way to launch an attack against Israelis, the Hamas Web site carried the following acknowledgement: “The three martyrs were on a holy mission when the Zionist U.S.-made helicopters fired two missiles toward their vehicle.” Sheikh Yassin, in justifying the terrorist mission of the three men and demanding revenge on Israel for its act of preemptive self-defense, promised that “the Palestinian people will continue their resistance despite this aggression.”

As the head of Hamas, Yassin pressed the “on” and “off” buttons — most often the “on” button — for terrorism. He repeatedly threatened that Hamas would kidnap Israelis, and he blessed one act of terrorism against civilians as a “distinguished operation” and another as “a good and successful operation.” He sent unambiguous messages to his followers to persist in terrorism by saying “there is no truce” and that civilians should be targeted.

Yassin had rejected all efforts at bringing about peace, including the American-backed “road map,” and had vowed to continue terrorism, even if the occupation were to end and the settlements dismantled. He also incited violence against Americans in Iraq by appealing to the Iraqi people to continue their jihad and to use all possible means to achieve victory against the British and American enemies. Despite Yassin’s claim that he is simply a religious or spiritual leader, he is a godfather of a terrorist group and supports and incites murder. (Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, immediately on taking over as commander of Hamas, issued a directive to the “military” wing of Hamas, ordering them “to strike all places all the time and using all means.” If such orders do not make Rantisi a combatant, I don’t know what would.)

In light of these statements, and of Yassin’s central role in inciting what he calls “martyr operations,” how is it possible to distinguish him from Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda’s second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. All of these terrorist leaders, as well as Osama bin Laden, should be regarded as combatants and thus appropriate targets for preemption.

When the Pakistani army, with American intelligence and logistical support, was seeking to kill or capture Zawahiri, most of the civilized world was rooting for the good guys and against Zawahiri. A collective groan could almost be heard around the world when it appeared that Zawahiri had slipped through the net and escaped. Yet the international community has condemned Israel for not allowing its own Zawahiri, namely Sheikh Yassin, to slip away and inspire more terrorist attacks.

It would be better, of course, if terrorist leaders could be captured alive and subjected to judicial proceedings. Indeed, Israel did this with Yassin, only to release him in 1997 to secure the release of two Israeli agents arrested in Jordan. But once he returned to the Gaza Strip, Yassin could not be arrested since he lived in a densely populated civilian area where he was protected by thousands of militants. The only options available to the Israeli military were to leave him be or to target him. Leaving him be would have entailed considerable risks to Israeli civilians, who are the targets of ongoing Yassin-inspired terrorist attacks. No country would accept that option.

While reasonable people can differ as to the wisdom or utility of this particular targeted killing, it is simply wrong to call it unlawful or immoral. Nor is it proper to criticize it as an “extra-judicial killing,” as some have done. All killings committed in combat are extra-judicial killing, but if the target is a combatant like Yassin, the killing is perfectly lawful, especially if the alternative of arrest is not possible.

This international condemnation of Israel sends a dangerous message to terrorists around the world: namely, that a democracy that targets a mass murderer who has sworn to continue his killing spree is to be condemned. These attacks on Israel’s right to self-defense set a poor precedent — and not only for the Jewish state.

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