Do Targeted Killings Work?

Courtesy Reuters


Salah Shehada lived a violent life. During his last two years, the senior Hamas leader directed up to 52 terrorist operations against Israel, killing 220 civilians and 16 soldiers. And on July 22, 2002, Shehada died a violent death: an Israeli F-16 dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on his apartment building, obliterating it with him inside.

Before deciding to kill Shehada, Israeli officials had first gone to the Palestinian Authority and repeatedly demanded his arrest. When the PA refused, the Israeli government then sought to apprehend him directly. But they gave up after realizing that Shehada lived in the middle of Gaza City and that any attempt to grab him would probably spark a general melee.

It was then that the Israelis decided to kill Shehada. But things still remained complicated; according to Moshe Yaalon, then the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Israel had to call off its first eight attempts because Shehada was always accompanied by his daughter. Only when Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, learned that he would be in an apartment building with no innocents nearby did the operation proceed. But the intelligence turned out to be incomplete: Shehada had his daughter with him after all, and the buildings surrounding his own were occupied. When the massive bomb demolished the target, it also damaged several of these other buildings. Shehada was killed -- but so were at least 14 civilians, including his daughter and eight other children.

The reaction to the attack was overwhelmingly negative. Hamas called it a massacre and said it would fight until "Jews see their own body parts in every restaurant, every park, every bus and every street." Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians turned out to mourn the victims. World leaders condemned the attack, and even the Bush administration called it "heavy-handed."

Israel temporarily became more cautious. When, two months later, its intelligence services learned that many of Hamas' surviving senior leaders ("the dream team," some analysts called them) had assembled for a meeting,

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