The Israeli Supreme Court decided Thursday not to issue a blanket ban against the targeted killing of Palestinian militants, ruling that some of the killings were legal under international law.
The ruling gave legal legitimacy to a practice Israeli forces have routinely used against militants during the past six years of violence. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem estimates that 339 Palestinians were killed in the targeted operations over the past six years. Of those, 210 were the targets and the rest were bystanders.
The three-judge panel unanimously ruled that “it cannot be determined in advance that every targeted killing is prohibited according to customary international law,” while also noting that the tactic was not necessarily legal in every case. Every case needs to be evaluated individually to determine its legality, the court said.
Two human rights groups, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment petitioned the court to ban the policy in 2002, but the court repeatedly delayed issuing a decision on the case.
The Israeli military began carrying out targeted killings of Palestinian militants after the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the subsequent outbreak of violence in the fall of 2000, saying the tactic was the most effective way to stop Palestinian bombers targeting Israeli population centers.
Hamas leader, operatives targeted
In the most widely criticized operation, in July 2002, the air force dropped a 1-ton bomb that killed Salah Shehadeh, a top Hamas operative wanted for masterminding suicide bombings, along with his bodyguard and 13 bystanders, including nine children. The Shehadeh killing led some international human rights groups to call for criminal charges against Israeli officers, including the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.
In 2004, Israel killed the leader of Hamas, the wheelchair-bound cleric Ahmed Yassin, in an airstrike and then killed his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Israeli government spokesman David Baker said the government was studying the ruling and had no immediate comment.
Ismail Radwan, a spokesman for the Islamic militant Hamas group, criticized the decision, saying it “gives judicial cover for terrorist practices by the government.”
Hamas is responsible for dozens of suicide bombings targeting civilians in Israel over the past decade.
The targeted killings are typically carried out from the air, with helicopter gunships or unmanned drones firing missiles at cars in Palestinian cities, acting on intelligence information from agents and informers on the ground. The tactic has since been adopted by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Critics say the policy constitutes execution without trial, and is illegal under international and Israeli law. Israel says it is permissible in the context of an armed conflict, and that civilian casualties are inevitable because militants work out of civilian areas.
The ruling was the last issued by retired Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who was completing a backlog of decisions months after his retirement.
In two important decisions released Tuesday and Wednesday, Barak angered Israelis on both ends of the political spectrum: He drew ire from hard-liners by ruling that Israel had to pay reparations for damages caused by some military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, and from doves by ruling that a section of Israel’s separation barrier that juts into the West Bank near Jerusalem can be left in place.