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Selective Targeting: Risks and Prospects


The moment the Israeli security forces defined the Intifada (Ebb and Tide events) as low-intensity warfare, they limited themselves not only semantically, but mostly in the types of weapons they could use. In such warfare, it is morally impossible, especially after the establishment of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, to use planes and tanks without stirring up the international community. Therefore, targets must be selective and precise. The IDF is not fighting an army or a civilian population but rather attacking a series of selective targets, thus any expansion of the warfare front may involve more severe or irreversible elements.

Nevertheless, “the day after” – the day Israel will have to meet the enemy at the negotiations table – should be taken into consideration. Israel must to operate in a manner that would allow the Palestinian people to become willing and worthy partners in the future.

Newspapers report of the fear among Palestinian activists in the Gaza Strip whenever they hear the buzz of a UAV, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which is much like the buzz of a bumblebee. Israeli UAVs constantly observe the Gaza Strip from above, looking for Palestinian Hellfire missiles.

This buzz has become, in the past few years, the worst psychological nightmare for terror organizations, but it is not the only one. Israeli security forces have other means in store – to be described in the following article -, which have brought about the assassination of over 400 terrorists from the air, land and, in some cases, the sea (the liquidation of Abu Jihad). Aerial Selective Targeting achieved great operational significance since the withdrawal from Palestinian cities and especially since the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The IDF no longer has military positions in Gaza; any penetration into Israel from Gaza may cause a firing incident, Apache and Cobra planes conducted therefore over 50 aerial attacks. All of them targeted HVT – High Value Targets.

It took the Israeli government a long time to take the responsibility and declare it was using Selective Targeting policy to counter terrorism.

This policy against terror seemed brutal in the eyes of the Israeli public and the international community, so Israeli security forces have changed the term from Selective Liquidation or killing to Selective Targeting, indicating a preventive measure rather than initiative active measure. In addition, the State of Israel has invested efforts in maintaining morality in warfare or a moral army, keeping its forces and young soldiers from brutalization or committing immoral liquidations.

The issue of Selective Targeting received attention due to numerous petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court, which sharpened the definition of “ticking bomb”, i.e. a suicide bomber, armed with explosives, or explosives belt, on a suicide mission. Needless to say, nothing will deter such a terrorist; therefore, according to security forces, a terrorist of this kind deserves nothing but death.

History of Liquidations: Summary

The Israeli policy of active retaliation was formulated during the Arab Revolt (1936-1939). With the help of the British Major General Charles Orde Wingate, special “Night Squads” were established to hit hubs of rioting Arab gangs on their ground; crossing borders and penetrating into enemy territory was the policy, generations of defense forces were trained before the state of Israel was founded.

The heritage of active retaliation was transmitted to Unit 101, after the establishment of the State of Israel, then to the Paratroops Unit and later on to all units of the IDF.

In the 70’s PM Golda Meir instructed Zvi Zamir, the head of the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations – the Intelligence Agency, to pursue the Black September terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, and to hit them anywhere in Europe.

The modus operandi of the Mossad was creative and bold. Some of the terrorists were liquidated by close range gunshots, others by explosive envelopes and others by explosives placed in their homes or headquarters and operated by telephone from afar (see the cases of Mahmud Hamshari and Basil Al Kubeisi in Paris).

The liquidation of Ali Hasan Salame, operation officer of Black September, on January 22, 1979 in Beirut, was a peak of that pursuit. It happened after the tragic mistake, made by the Mossad unit under the command of Mike Harrari and Abraham Gemer, because of misidentification and the killing of the Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bushiki in Lillehammer, Norway (July, 1973). This error led to the capture of several members of the unit, and even worse, to the exposure of the means and methods of the operators.

Parallelly, the IDF worked to destroy the infrastructure of terror in the Gaza Strip, after the death of the Erwin children (Marc and Abigail) by a bomb thrown at their father’s car. They were burned to death (January 2, 1971), and their mother wounded. In retaliation, the IDF established the reconnaissance unit Pomegranate, Sayeret Rimon, whose primary goal was, along with Shin Bet agents, the liquidation of terrorists in the Gaza Strip. At the head of this unit was the brave and creative young officer, Lieutenant Major Meir Dagan, who later became the head of the Mossad, nominated by Ariel Sharon, previously his commander.

The principle of Sayeret Rimon was the relentless pursuit of terrorists through “Arabization”, accurate intelligence (MLM) and daring sorties into the hiding and operation bases of the terrorists. Additional reconnaissance units were formed during the First Intifada, such as Sayeret Duvdevan (Central Command) and Sayeret Shimshon (Southern Command). Later on, with the escalation of the warfare and the increase in the number of targets, other elite units were established.

Selective Targeting – The Moral Dilemma

There are five declared goals for Selective Targeting:

1. Prevention – pre-empting a terrorist who is about to carry out a terror attack as in the case of a “ticking bomb”.

2. Punishment – locating and hitting the people responsible for terror acts and their leaders.

3. Deterrence – causing the terrorists, in general, and their leaders, in particular, to live in constant fear of Israeli security forces, and by that to curb their mobility and freedom of movement.

4. Striking – striking the terror infrastructure, curbing its growth, and preventing the development of a central command.

5. Political motivation – placating Israeli public opinion, aroused by terror acts, in the sense of “an eye for an eye”.

The principle of Selective Targeting is a precise instrument in which the HVT (i.e., High Value Target) pays for the act with his own head, instead of indiscriminate bombing or shelling of civilian population, causing many innocent casualties (i.e., the strike at a school in Kfar Kanna, Lebanon, in 1996, killing 57).

The precision of Selective Targeting pacifies the conscience, especially in law-abiding countries like Israel, but there are still open questions:

1. Should the selection of targets be made by a very senior forum? Should it be a civilian or a military forum? How do the decision-makers reach those decisions? What data is presented to these decision-makers? What happens in case of disagreements?

2. Is the case of attacking soldiers or security forces the same as that of civilian targets? Is there a need for more painful deterrence in retaliation to attacks against security forces?

3. Is the case of an unsuccessful terror attack, in which there are no casualties, the same as one with many casualties?
Is the number of casualties the only criterion?

4. What is the role of the Palestinian Authority in the prevention of acts of terror: should Israel try to pass on information about a “hot” or imminent attack to the Palestinian Authority, or try and hit such a “ticking bomb” by itself? What is the role of the Authority in the process of accepting the responsibility for the life and security of Israeli civilians?

5. How is it possible to keep the “Purity of Arms” during Selective Targeting operations? Is it at the expense of the safety of the operators (noting the involvement of the Supreme Court in the case of “neighbor procedure” using a neighbor as a human shield, which disallowed the use of innocent civilians)? Will a green light be granted to perform Selective Targeting if the victim is accompanied by his family (as in the case of Salah Shahade, where 15 innocent bystanders were killed, including his wife and 9 children in Gaza in 2002)?This has become the key moral question which has raised much interest in the Israeli public.

6. What are the limits? The Israeli security establishment, like the political establishment, struggled with the question of the parameters or limits of Selective Targeting. Do you limit it to targeting the military leaders of the terrorist organizations, and leave the political leadership immune, despite the fact that the borders between these two are vague? It is known, for example, that Hamas leaders Sheik Yassin and Abd el Aziz Rantisi conducted meetings with the military leadership and guided their selection of targets and timing of operations. It is also possible that the leadership of Hamas understood the deviation from legitimate political limits and was therefore satisfied with threats of revenge rather than action. Despite that, the state of Israel is left with a difficult dilemma as to its moral image.

The issue of moral limits was directed to the then Commander of Israel Air Force, Dan Halutz, who would later on become Chief of Staff. Halutz replied, in his figurative language, that instead of experiencing a moral shock during a Selective Targeting operation, he felt “a small tap on the wing of his plane.” One must keep in mind that even though Selective Targeting is aimed at one target or a small group of terrorists, the targets live and operate in dense populations, which frequently are not related to terror and may have it imposed upon them.

Selective Targeting: Opus Operandi

The Israeli Defense System is preparing itself continuously to perform selective targeting. The way chosen to shorten the time from selecting a target to performing it is a “bank of targets”. This database contains the files of targets and the means to carry them out. Government decision makers can pick a target – or a series of targets – off the “shelf”.

There are four types of Selective Targeting:

1. DST – Direct Selective Targeting: special unit reaches destination, breaks into the terrorist hideout, identifies the target, captures or liquidates it.

2. IST –Indirect Selective Targeting: entrapping vehicle of terrorist or other means (as bomb-laden cell phone in case of Yahya Ayyash, “the engineer”), using and operating by remote control. This mean requires accurate information and timing. The advantage of IST is low risk to operators, thus using local aides to transfer explosives to location.

3. RST – Remote Selective Targeting: using missiles, like Hellfire, or a substitute, known currently only to the Defense System, shot from a plane or a UAV. The advantage of RST is the total safety of operators and the ability to deny responsibility, thus being a tool of psychological warfare. RST has been developed by the Israel Air Force as part of modern warfare and adopted by the US Air Force in the war in Iraq. Prior intelligence is of utmost importance in this warfare, especially visual intelligence.

4. LAST – Local Aides Selective Targeting: this method requires reliable aides or agents who have a prior “connection” with the selected target. It is doubtful LAST was used during the Ebb and Tide events, but it was a popular technique in the past, enabling operators to keep local aides from the fate of Vendetta, so common in Middle Eastern society.
Selective Targeting: Operational Dilemmas

As time passes, ST has become one of most threatening weapons for security forces used against terror activists. Armed forces highly professionalized their skills and developed unique technologies for the operating tasks. The risk of ST is that means and opus operandi will leak into the hands of terror organizations (see the assassination case of Minister Rehavaam (Gandi) Ze’evi in 2001).

Following are some key issues the Israeli Defense System is facing:

1. Intelligence – the key issue of ST operation is locating accurate and up to date information (MLM). MLM is vital for identifying the victim, who frequently changes identities, his daily routine, especially operational, his routes of transportation and his contacts with family and comrades.

2. Communication – success of an ST operation means avoidance of hitting innocent bystanders thus requiring bi-directional communications, – between operators and General Security Services (Shin Bet) headquarters. Yuval Diskin, formerly lieutenant and currently commander of the Shin Bet, has set up that much-needed operational layout.

3. Precise Armament – adjusting armament to target is important, thus avoiding any immediate environmental damage, as well as harsh public opinion. Nevertheless, armament must not be too light, as it might not perform the ST successfully. Aerial operations in the past have been carried out with Hellfire missiles, aimed at tanks. Now, after a few unsuccessful attempts, a new type of missile has been used in ST against terrorists, aimed at their vehicles, a type unpublicized to this date.

4. The Day After – ST initiators and operators must consider reactions of terror organizations.Who will replace the victim? Will there be an escalation of reactions? What is the capacity of this specific organization? Keeping that in mind is vital for maintaining the balance of terror of Israeli security forces over terror organizations, and for keeping the proper arsenal of non-military means of deterrence.

5. Notification or Admission –The serious dilemma Israeli Defense System faces is whether to take responsibility for an ST operation or maintain operational ambiguity? The alternative is inciting one organization against another, thus hinting or creating “sibling rivalry,” making it ultimately responsible for the liquidation of the victim. Nevertheless, one must keep in mind that there are few secrets left in the current global world of communication, and the secrets of today might be revealed by tomorrow.

The right choice for the State of Israel should be, I think, to acknowledge openly and officially hitting HVT, High Value Targets, such as Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantisi targeting in 2004, as retaliation for deadly terror acts committed by Hamas. Nevertheless, a sense of ambiguity regarding ST must be kept, especially regarding those “grey” operations that do not lead directly to Israel, or those involving unconventional weaponry or secret operational means.

One of the mysteries the State of Israel has not been able to solve is the inability to deter terror organizations, despite finding and Selectively Targeting their top leaders and commanders. Every imaginative and bold terrorist leader has been replaced within a short time and the organization has resumed action rejuvenated.

The most famous example is Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, who rose far above his predecessor Abase Musawi, who had been liquidated by the IDF. Another example is Yihya Ayyash, “the engineer” liquidated in 1996, who was replaced by Muhammad Def, no less skilled. This warfare requires such patience and deep breath – things Israel had not realized would be so necessary. Besides, we must not forget the hidden psychological importance of retaliation. The importance of retaliation in pacifying the Israeli public, crying for revenge, is greater than the operational importance, and even greater as elections get closer.


Modern warfare is no longer defined as a confrontation between two armies, or two states using all resources to beat each other. In the nuclear era, after two world wars, there are other types of middle-size wars and a lot of terror. Terror is used by the physically weaker side to inflict losses on the stronger side, which is inexperienced at terror, compelling the stronger side to participate in it. That is how terror expanded in the 60’s-70’s, aerial terror, urban terror (such as the Bader Meinhoff and the Japanese Red Army gangs), and unconventional terror.

Palestinian terror is the most persistent of them all. Palestinians know they cannot defeat Israel militarily, so they operate in the midst of highly dense civilian populations and generate the ultimate form of terror – suicide bombers. The purpose of suicide bombers is to make the occupation so loathsome to Israelis, so scary, that they will do anything possible to withdraw from all occupied territories in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip (Some say their goal is the annihilation of Israel).

The way to fight this type of terror requires a combination of awareness of the fact that security services need all of their available resources, but in parallel, sophisticated devices must be developed for ST, making it the preferred way to beat the leaders and activists of terror organizations until they get weaker. This warfare must be fought persistently, without wavering or capitulating. However, a door must be kept open for future negotiations, until the conflict is terminated.

Selective Targeting, according to security forces, is the most effective technique against Kassam rocket launchers. However, the Islamic Jihad has not participated in Palestinian Authority public elections of the, therefore it takes no responsibility for launching Kassam missiles at civilians in Southern Israel, nor responsibility for the implications for the Palestinian Authority and its institutions.