In the night between 8 and 9 May, Asmahan Adas, a Palestinian woman who lives in the Gaza Strip, returned home to find her two daughters Iman and Dania, aged 17 and 19, still awake. They were sitting on their beds watching silly videos on their phones. A few minutes later, around two in the morning, both were killed by an Israeli bombing whose target was Khalil al Bahtini, head of operations in the north of the Strip for Islamic Jihad, one of the most important radical Palestinian groups.
Bahtini and Adas’ daughters, who lived in the apartment next door, weren’t the only people killed that night. Bahtini’s wife Laila and their 4-year-old daughter Hajar were also killed in the same attack. Their deaths have resurfaced a periodically held debate over the accuracy of what Israel calls “targeted killings” of prominent members of radical Palestinian groups, which it believes it cannot counter or stop in any other way.
Israel has been practicing these killings for about twenty years, i.e. since the violent attacks carried out by Palestinian armed groups during the so-called Second Intifada, a popular Palestinian revolt between 2001 and 2005. In recent months, however, these operations have intensified: at the beginning May During days of great tension between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip, several targeted killings were carried out, during which, however, civilians were also killed. According to a calculation by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights there were 12, according to the Israeli army 9.
The official position of the Israeli military is that in planning such operations every attempt is made to avoid killing people other than the targets. “If we could, we would strike our terrorist targets without doing any harm to those not involved. We try very hard for that to be the case,” Israeli army chief Herzl Halevi said recently.
Targeted killings have been studied for years by international law experts, who have many doubts about their legitimacy, both in contexts of peace and in contexts of war (in which, however, opinions are more nuanced). For example, many experts believe that this Israeli policy violates the right of those killed to a fair trial, and to receive and serve a sentence: very rarely people targeted by the Israeli army are tried, before being identified and killed.
In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court also ruled on the issue, with a ruling that has since been cited very often as a precedent by the army, because in fact it allows targeted killings of people whom the Israeli army deems dangerous to Israeli national security. Recently, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz summarized that the Supreme Court considered targeted killings legitimate “in the event that the operation is based on accurate information and that there is no other way to act on the individual in question”.
At times, Israel has managed to minimize collateral damage to people other than the target. On January 5, 1996, the Israeli army killed what was then considered the main bomb maker for Hamas, the radical group that rules the Gaza Strip. His name was Yahya Ayyash and he was accused of making bombs that were used in several attacks in Israel in the 1990s. By roundabout ways, the Israeli military managed to plant an explosive charge in one of Ayyash’s cell phones. When he held it to his ear to answer a call from his father, the Israeli military remotely detonated the explosive. No other people were injured or killed in the operation.
In other cases, similar operations have killed many more people than expected, including some who had nothing to do with it. In 2002, an Israeli fighter jet dropped a one-ton bomb on the apartment in Gaza where Salah Shehade, one of the commanders of the military wing of Hamas, lived: according to a calculation by the NGO B’Tselem, in addition to Shehade, 13 other people died in the bombing. and scores were wounded.
Another much-criticized aspect of these operations is that they almost never take place in isolated areas, where it would be easier to minimize the collateral damage: according to some, these attacks would be a form of collective punishment against the Palestinians, to tolerate and in some cases support the of radical groups. More or less like when Israel decides to demolish the apartments or houses of the Palestinian bombers.
Israel defends itself against the accusations by explaining that the leaders of Hamas or Islamic Jihad purposely choose to hide in highly populated places in order to use other Palestinians as human shields against Israeli attacks, and that compared to the very first years of these operations over time the civilians killed are much reduced. Finding data that supports this thesis is very complicated: some time ago a Haaretz journalist had established that in fact between the first years 2000 and 2007 civilian deaths in this type of attack had decreased, but for more recent times we do not have very many data.
Asmahan Adas knew that Bahtini could be a target of the Israeli army and says that when he knew that the neighbor was at home he had his daughters move to the rooms furthest from Bahtini’s. These precautions were not enough. “What precision are we talking about when you kill civilians?” she asked the New York Times. “When Israel wants to kill someone they can find many ways to do it.”