The controversy surrounding the targeted killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, (allegedly) by members of the Israeli Mossad continues to grow in the UK. While the focus has been on the use of UK and Irish passports to facilitate the entry of agents into Dubai, there are some other interesting issues brought forward by this case.
The first is to keep in mind that targeted killings in the Israeli context are an adminstrative decision taken within the cabinet and office of the Prime Minister. And as administration decisions, they are shaped by a political-legal context.
This context is one that has been recently influenced by legal advice given to the Israeli government as well as two high profile constitutional challenges to legality of assassination under the Basic Law. A 2002 recommendation by the Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Israel Defense Forces outlined four essential conditions that must be satisfied before a targeted killing can take place. First, the Palestinian Authority must ignore appeals for arrests of persons of interest. Second, Israeli security forces must reach the conclusion through careful assessment that they cannot arrest the persons of interest themselves. Third, any attack must be proportional. Fourth, a targeted killing should only be done to prevent an imminent or future attack; retribution or revenge are not justifications. These conditions were supported in rulings given by the Israeli High Court in 2002 and 2006 affirming the legality of targeted killing, with the later decision adding the requirement of an independent investigation following every instance.
Beyond the important issues of legality at both the national and international levels, I think it is also beneficial to analyse how it has become possible for a tactical success to be both a strategic and political failure under the terms and calculations by which the Israel state governs its own conduct.
Israeli standard operation procedure in intelligence matters is to neither confirm nor deny reports of tactical operations. Yet, according to a report in the Jerusalem Post, at least two Israeli cabinet members--Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz--have already pretty much come out and credited the Mossad with involvement.
If the Mossad was involved, as stated above, the decision to assassinate would have been made at the level of the Prime Minister with the involvement of members of the cabinet. However, it is not necessarily the case that Binyamin Netanyahu or other members of the cabinet would have been specifically briefed on the logistical details of the operation (i.e., the use of foreign passports) though I would suspect that some indication that it might be taking place in a third party state would have been indicated given the potential political fallout. But since this operation was taking place outside of Israel or Palestine and Israeli citizens face travel restrictions in the region, the Prime Minister and others would have had to have been tacitly aware that entry into Dubai by agents was not going to be on Israeli passports.
In addition, while no government likes the idea of their passports being used--or forged-- to facilitate the intelligence operations of other states, what I think is qualitatively different in this case is that living British citizens have had their identities stolen. Culturally, the fear of identity theft is quite profound. Thus, I suspect that many people who might not have been particularly bothered by the murder itself--or Israel's use of targeted killing more generally--find themselves very ill at ease at the idea that agents of a foreign government might decide to steal their identity in order to commit actions that could burden them with profound legal liabilities while having profound consequences for their ability to travel, earn a living, or live in the absence of fear of reprisal.
So beyond the usual concerns of conducting a targeted killing, this operation assumed additional risks. While hindsight is always 20-20, this indirect--and non-consensual--involvement of additional state parties by using their passports and, more importantly, stealing the identities of their citizens was diplomatically reckless.
The imprudence becomes all the more apparent when the general consensus amongst analysts is that the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh is not a substantial loss to Hamas. Reports on his life history emphasize that although he was heavily involved in bringing arms into Palestine, he was not a particularly high-profile or publicly charismatic member of the organization. Moreover, his function as an arms dealer and smuggler are easily replaceable. The risks taken in the commissioning of his assassination therefore seem well out of proportion to his strategic significance. Thus, one wonders if this was less a case of preventing an imminent or future attack (as advised under the JAG guidelines) and simply a case of retribution? If so, this operation would be at direct odds with the already lenient procedural rules governing the use of targeted killing in Israel.
The key question then is whether the death of al-Mabhouh will be framed this way within Israeli political discourses and if so, what the--if any-- longer range political consequences might be for the Likud government.
'Israel remains silent...' from guardian.co.uk
Photo credit: mrbill