(Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
The targeted killing of terrorists must be regarded as an exceptional measure, appropriate only in extraordinary circumstances. However, in cases in which there is an imminent and genuine threat, and in which there is no practical possibility of preventing such attacks by other means, it is permissible under international law.
No state is required by international law to remain passive in the face of armed attacks. The right of self defense is a cardinal principle of customary international law, which also finds expression in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.
States are entitled to take proportionate action to defend their citizens from an imminent armed attack and there is no practicable alternative. The incessant attacks to which Israel has been subjected over the past three years, in which terrorists operating with impunity from within Palestinian areas have murdered 945 men, women and children and maimed thousands, as well as the explicit statements from terrorist groups taking responsibility and threatening more such attacks, would seem to satisfy even the most stringent definition of the requirements of self defense.
While the prevention of injury to civilian bystanders must be a paramount concern, the fact that a terrorist deliberately places himself within the civilian population does not grant him immunity. It is for the state exercising the right of self-defense to weigh carefully any potential civilian casualties, and to limit its action to the minimum necessary to bring the security threat to an end.
Arguments that terrorists cannot be targeted since they are protected by the Geneva Conventions are unfounded. An individual who engages in terrorist attacks, uses weaponry and armaments, and is part of a hostile military organization, could not by any definition be described as civilian or expect to rely on the benefits accorded to protected civilians under the Conventions. As the International Committee of the Red Cross manual on the law of armed conflict states:
Civilians are not permitted to take a direct part in hostilities and are immune from attack. If they take a direct part in hostilities they forfeit this immunity.
Finally, it should be noted that the use of such phrases as “assassination” and “extra-judicial killing” to describe such acts is demagogic and inappropriate. “Assassination” describes the murder of a prominent person or public official for political ends. The targeting of terrorists focuses not on the public role of the individual, but on the role played by them in the murder of innocent civilians, and has as its goal not political motives but the saving of life. “Extra-judicial killing” implies that an alternative legal recourse is available and has been deliberately ignored. On the rare occasions that Israel targets terrorists, it is precisely because no legal recourse is available. As such, the policy is no more extra-judicial than any individual using force to defend themselves from attack.