The Logic of Assassination

The Logic of Assassination

The Logic of Assassination

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 18 2001 12:00 AM

The Logic of Assassination

Why Israeli murders and Palestinian suicide bombings make sense.

Scene of Jerusalem suicide bombing

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has settled into a gory rhythm: Israel answers a Palestinian suicide bombing by assassinating Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, the Palestinians reply to the killings with another suicide bombing, the Israelis retort with more assassinations …

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

From the outside, the call-and-response blood bath seems both barbaric and inexplicable. Within Israel, assassination boasts almost universal support, but it irks even Israel's best friends. (The State Department calls it "reprehensible.") Three-quarters of Palestinians favor suicide bombings, but the rest of the world denounces them. The bombings and assassinations are not merely immoral, they also seem nonsensical. After all, the assassinations have not slowed the pace of bombings but have radicalized Palestinians, encouraging even more to back violence against Israelis. The suicide bombings, meanwhile, smudge the Palestinian image as oppressed innocents, ruin Yasser Arafat's hard-won reputation as a peacemaker, and harden Israeli resolve.

But for all their apparent irrationality, suicide bombing and assassination have a powerful logic to them. From the perspective of economics, game theory, and military strategy, both tactics make a perverse kind of sense.

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Assassination, which has been disavowed by every other democratic nation and condemned by treaty and international law, has long been a favorite Israeli weapon. Israel famously hunted down the Black September terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. In the '80s and '90s, it occasionally assassinated leaders of the PLO, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. Israel claimed, with much justification, that it was killing murderers it could not otherwise bring to justice and that it acted only to prevent terrorist attacks. (The United States, which abandoned assassination only in 1976, grudgingly tolerated Israel's extrajudicial executions.)

The pace of assassinations has accelerated exponentially during the current uprising. Israel has assassinated upward of two dozen Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists and leaders—killing more than a dozen bystanders in the process. Israel, though presenting limited public evidence that its victims were plotting violence, insists that all were known terrorists heavily involved in attacks on Israeli civilians. Killing them deters terror and saves lives, Israel says.

The military logic of assassination is this: Murdering operatives saps the effectiveness of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Assassination not only neutralizes the dead man, it also forces other terrorists to go underground. Since they know Israel may kill them, they spend much of their time running and less time plotting terror. Without skilled bomb-makers and planners, Hamas and Islamic Jihad should have more difficulty infiltrating Israel and carrying out deadly assaults. There are already hints that this is happening. The quality of bombers seems to be dropping. Numerous Palestinians have been killed or wounded in bomb-making accidents, several bombers have been caught before they could detonate their explosives, and some of the bombers who have detonated have not managed to kill any Israelis. So even though Israel knows that assassinations enrage Palestinians and swell the ranks of would-be bombers, it is counting on degrading Hamas and Islamic Jihad faster than the new volunteers can restore them.

The assassinations have a political utility, too. During the last intifada in the late '80s, Israelis and Israel's allies soured on the conflict partly because the TV kept broadcasting footage of Israeli soldiers gunning down rock-throwing kids. There was plenty of such footage at the start of this intifada, too. The assassination policy is more media-friendly and doesn't create PR problems at home. It protects soldiers' lives, as pressing a demand in Israel as it is in the United States. (This need to avoid casualties explains why Israel doesn't try to arrest the men it is targeting. Capture would require ground fighting in Palestinian neighborhoods. Israelis would be killed. Soldiers usually assassinate from the safety of helicopters.)

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Perhaps the most important rationale for assassination is psychological. The Palestinians are bombing Israeli cities in order to foment chaos and uncertainty, to create the sense that violence is everywhere, that it is random, and that it cannot be controlled. The Sharon government is terrified that the violence—or the perception of violence—will spin out of control. Assassination is supposed to be the antidote. It is supposed to counteract the chaos. "It is the ultimate form of controlled military response, and that is important for the Israelis," says Ken Pollack, director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council from 1999-2001. The assassinations are intended to bring precision and order back to the fight. They suggest that this is a conflict with clear limits, not a total war, and that Israel really is in control of it.

Suicide bombing and assassination are a case study in the law of comparative advantage. Israel, where labor is expensive and capital is relatively cheap, invests in assassination, a high-tech strategy that requires lots of equipment but does not risk Israeli lives. In the occupied territories, labor is plentiful but capital is expensive. So the Palestinians have adopted a labor-intensive strategy—literally throwing bodies at the problem. (Incidentally, comparing suicide bombing and assassination is not meant to suggest a moral equivalence between them. The assassinations target terrorists and other combatants. The bombings are vastly more loathsome because they are intended to murder noncombatants, including children.)

Suicide bombing has another compelling economic logic, notes Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Hoover Institution senior fellow and NYU professor. The bombers have a financial incentive to martyr themselves. They are young men with no economic prospects, no education, no vocation, no opportunity. Suicide bombers guarantee their families payoffs from the Palestinian Authority and from Saddam Hussein. "There is a rational expectation on the part of suicide bombers that they are providing for the future welfare for their families," says Bueno de Mesquita. (It also doesn't hurt that they think they are going to paradise.)

(Suicide bombing also exacts no significant cost on Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Though each bombing sacrifices one supporter, it recruits many more. All evidence suggests that more men wish to be suiciders now than before the bombings started.)

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The most important rationale for bombing is public relations. Bombing has brought the Palestinians an odd kind of victory. Though the world universally condemns the murder of Israeli civilians, press coverage of the bombers is increasingly sympathetic. They are depicted as true men of courage, so oppressed and so fervent they will die for their cause. The bombers understand that murder may be grotesque, but suicide can be glamorous. "The initial impact is revulsion, but the long-term impact is that it makes people aware of the desperate plight of those doing it," notes Bueno de Mesquita. If you examine recent American news stories, the bombers are profiled as much as martyrs as murderers. (See, for example, thisWashington Post story on the bombers of Jenin.)

Similarly, the bombings reinforce the Palestinian image as an oppressed and impoverished people. Suicide bombs are weapons of the weak. Even though Palestinian groups possess surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades, they don't use them. They stick to this crude and cheap suicide technique. It suggests to the outside world that this is an unfair fight—the plucky, poor Palestinians doing the only thing they can to resist the Zionist oppressors. (Missiles and grenade launchers are, of course, harder to hide than bombs—surely another reason why they haven't been deployed.)

This image of the unfair fight is critical to the Palestinian strategy. The Palestinians know they can't win a shooting war with Israel, which has overwhelming military superiority. They are hoping to put enough international pressure on Israel that it has to cave. The bombings are intended to invite reprisal. The bombers are desperate to have Israel overreact, to strike back too hard—for an Israeli missile to hit a school bus rather than a Hamas leader. The longer the bombing campaign goes on, the more enraged Israelis will become and the more likely they will be to counterstrike too forcefully.

The two strategies represent distinct styles of modern warfare: the rich and the poor. Like NATO's precision bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, assassination exemplifies how powerful democracies now fight. Israel has chosen a strategy that minimizes its own casualties (for domestic political reasons), minimizes opposing civilian casualties (for international political reasons), and relies on the idea that if violence is applied to a "few key nodes, the other side will fall apart," as Pollack puts it. Israel recognizes the futility of a conventional war: It would conquer the West Bank, kill thousands of Palestinians, and then what?

The Palestinians, by contrast, are deploying the basic modern underdog strategy. The United States was beaten in Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon by rivals who exploited terribly difficult terrain, the impossibility of distinguishing civilian and military populations, the willingness to suffer enormous casualties, and suicidal techniques. Without gaining anything like a conventional military victory, they won the psychological and PR war, sapped American morale, and drove us away. Suicide bombing is designed to do exactly the same thing.

This conflict that seems so bestial and unrestrained is actually rather tightly scripted. The Palestinians don't dare escalate by, say, shooting down El Al airplanes with their missiles because they know it will cost them the international sympathy they need. They don't dare engage the Israeli army face to face because they know they will be slaughtered. The Israelis don't dare escalate by launching a full-scale invasion of the occupied territories because even if they "win," which they would, they would change nothing. They'd still be ruling millions of belligerent Palestinians willing to blow themselves up in downtown Tel Aviv.

So both sides stick to the text: bombing-assassination-bombing-assassination. Whoever can wait longer wins. Israel waits for its assassinations to unravel the terrorist organizations. The Palestinians wait for Israel to overreact to a bombing and poison world opinion against it. The suicide bombings and assassinations may be ugly and horrific, but they are not illogical.