The Ease of Lethality: US and Israeli Targeted Killing Policies

Targeted killing is not a new tactic. A number of different countries and non-state actors have used targeted killing throughout history to achieve political or military objectives. Today, however, there are only two countries that practice it as a matter of national security policy: the United States and Israel.

Proponents of targeted killing argue that it is simply more efficient war fighting—it is no more or less moral than killing an enemy on a traditional battlefield. In fact, it is argued, targeted killing may even save lives due to the precision that new technology allows. What we have seen, however, is that counterterrorism has become more lethal not less.

Kill lists get longer

According to most war ethicists, individuals must pose an imminent and pressing threat in order to justify targeted killing. President Obama acknowledged this principle as one of the five main criteria for the US targeted killing policy in a 2012 interview with CNN’s Jessica Yellin (CNN). He further qualified that the situation must not allow for the capture of the target. Israeli courts have stipulated similar criteria (UNHCR).

However, both US and Israeli governments have continued to expand their definitions of “militant” and “imminent threat.” Since the second intifada in 2000, Israel has targeted Palestinian journalists, politicians, and low-level bureaucrats (BBC). According to Israel, these actions are legitimate because the targets are all “members of militant organizations that call for the destruction of Israel through military struggle” whether they are in the militant wing of the organization or not.

The Obama administration has also used similar logic to expand the scope of its targeted killing policy. A Department of Justice memo that was leaked in February 2013 details the legality of targeted killings against US citizens deemed to be a part of Al Qaeda or one of its affiliates. According to the memo, the nature of terrorism “demands a broader concept of imminence” that is not limited by evidence of a specific attack or urgency of attack (MSNBC). Instead, the US government may legitimately target and kill any individual—including an American citizen—who is deemed to be an operational leader of Al Qaeda or an affiliated group.

Even more insidious, “signature strikes” have revived the Vietnam-era concept of “military-aged male,” whereby individuals are targeted based only on patterns of behavior or characteristics rather than positive identification as a combatant (see CFR report). In other words, the US government does not even know the identities of all of its targets.

Disregard for civilian life

The US and Israel both purport to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid civilian casualties. However, there is significant evidence to the contrary. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented US attacks on funerals and rescue efforts in Pakistan (BIJ). There are also many examples of both the US and Israel launching attacks on the same target twice (The Guardian, HRW). The second attack often kills or injures civilian rescuers who rush to the attack site to help the victims of the initial attack.

The United States has mostly denied the impact of targeted killings on civilians. In June 2011, Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan told reporters, “Nearly for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop,” referring to drones (NYT). Unnamed administration officials have admitted to civilian deaths but all of their estimates have been low, ranging from less than 10 to 60 civilian deaths, and contradictory (ProPublica).

Independent reporting agencies, however, have found civilian casualties to be much higher. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has undertaken a comprehensive effort to aggregate all available data on U.S. drone strikes using international press reports in addition to fieldwork from researchers and lawyers on the ground in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. It estimates that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012 drone strikes in Pakistan killed 2,562-3,325 people, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children (BIJ). An additional 1,228-1,362 individuals were reported injured.

Israel, on the other hand, does not deny that IDF attacks result in civilian deaths—but it does not take responsibility for them either. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Avital Leibovich, the official Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson, said, “Hamas is responsible for any civilian deaths,” alluding to the claims that Hamas uses civilians as human shields or purposefully provokes Israeli aggression to win more support (RT). Leibovich continued, “The Gazans chose Hamas, Hamas chose terror, terror is rocket fire, we will not simply submit to this kind of situation.” This is the same line of reasoning that Gilad Sharon—son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon—used in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post: “The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas…they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences” (JPost).

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights estimates that between September 2000 and June 2008, Israel launched 348 targeted killings which resulted in the deaths of 521 targeted persons and 233 bystanders (PCHR).

Beyond the loss of life, targeted killings inflict psychological terror on the civilian population and fundamentally disrupt civilian life. According to a study published in 2012 by researchers at Stanford University and New York University, “those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves” ( This creates an environment of fear, paranoia, and resentment.

 “For Our Sakes”

Targeted killing is a tactic that has forsaken strategy. As many feared, the ease with which individuals can be targeted and eliminated has lowered the threshold for violence and raised our tolerance for lethality. It has no foreseeable end nor definable goal.

Teju Cole of The New Yorker reminds us that, “this ominous, discomfiting, illegal, and immoral use of weaponized drones against defenseless strangers is done for our sakes” (The New Yorker). Israeli and American citizens should ask ourselves, how much more violence will we tolerate in our name?