By Zaharna, R. S.
Foreign Policy in Focus , Vol. 6, No. 32
* Washington appears to be condoning a government policy of extrajudicial killings by Israel.
* Extrajudicial killings cannot be justified even during armed conflicts.
* The appearance of U.S. support for Israel's policy of extrajudicial killings jeopardizes U.S. political credibility internationally, damages U.S. relations in the Arab world, and weakens U.S. policy objectives.
Israel has stated publicly that it intends to pursue a policy of targeting and killing Palestinian militants. To generate support for its policy, Israel opened new public affairs offices, created a delicate vocabulary, and presented an emotionally compelling argument. Many American policymakers, officials, and media commentators have echoed Israeli arguments. However, what American officials are advocating in their support for Israel is a state-sanctioned policy of extrajudicial killing. This is unprecedented.
Most governments that conduct assassinations, whether of dissidents, political adversaries, or members of rebel groups, either conduct them covertly or categorically deny them. No government can implement a state policy of executing people without due legal proceedings and not incur international condemnation. Such killings violate international humanitarian law, international criminal law, and human rights protocols.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention (ratified by Israel in 1951), extrajudicial killings constitute "grave breaches" and are subject to international jurisdiction. The severity that the U.S. attaches to extrajudicial killings is reflected in the State Department's annual human rights report. The first item listed under its accounting of human rights abuses is extrajudicial killings. Even Israeli law, for reasons of moral conviction, prohibits the death penalty for Israeli citizens.
Human rights instruments stipulate that when a government suspects an individual of criminal or subversive activity, that government is obligated to capture and try the person. The government must present its evidence against the individual under a transparent judicial process of inquiry. To date, the Israeli government has offered no proof of guilt nor right of defense for the Palestinians it has killed. Moreover, several of the Palestinians killed had frequently passed through Israeli checkpoints where they could easily have been captured. Citing counterterrorism and security measures does not absolve Israel of its judicial obligations.
Extrajudicial killings cannot be justified even during armed conflicts. In January, Israel used this situational pretext to suspend investigations of killings by its security forces, creating what Amnesty International called "a culture of impunity." Under international law, exceptional circumstances "including a state of war or threat of war, internal instability, or any other public emergency" may not be invoked to justify executions by a state. International law does not allow for willful killings under any circumstances.
Israeli officials have avoided the legal term extrajudicial killings as well as the political term assassinations, using instead "hitting Palestinian targets," "pinpointing attackers," and "neutralizing" or "liquidating" the organizers of attacks. Initially, the policy was labeled "preemptive operations," then "interception," and more recently, "active self-defense." The term self-defense is strategic, given that U.S. law prohibits the sale of weapons for other than defensive purposes.
Israel has argued its case of active self-defense exclusively within the context of the current 11-month Intifada, omitting its role as an occupying power in the Palestinian territories for the past 34 years. This glaring omission gives the appearance that Palestinian actions are occurring in a political vacuum rather than in response to the prolonged Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.
Israel says that it goes "to great lengths not to harm innocent bystanders. …