Jerusalem - The Israeli missile tore into Ahmed Jabari's car, incinerating the occupants inside as they drove in the Gaza Strip, igniting the worst violence in years in the occupied Palestinian territories.
"Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated," the Israel Defense Forces later posted on Twitter.
The assassination of Hamas' military commander last Wednesday was launched in response to Jabari's "decade-long terrorist activity", the Israeli intelligence service claimed, confirming it carried out the strike.
The attack sparked the escalation of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, with dozens now dead and hundreds wounded. Israel has called up 75,000 military reservists, a sign that a ground operation could be imminent.
Jabari's killing - one of several recent extrajudicial killings in the Gaza Strip - has also raised questions about Israel's long-standing policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders, in what the Israelis call "targeted killings".
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told Al Jazeera the Jabari assassination was legal. He noted NATO countries "around the world have used this method against terrorists".
"You're talking about people who are combatants. You're talking about people who have declared war on you, people who are terrorising your civilian population, people who are directly responsible for countless deaths. They are a legitimate target under international law," Regev said.
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History of assassinations
Research by the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) found between the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000 until the end of June 2008, the Israeli military carried out 348 "extrajudicial execution operations" in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The attacks killed 754 Palestinians; 521 individuals specifically targeted and 233 civilian bystanders, including 71 children and 20 women.
"These premeditated executions are carried out with the explicit approval of the highest ranking Israeli political and military officials, who claim these executions are 'targeted killings' of Palestinians who allegedly threaten the security of the State of Israel," the report says.
Shawan Jabarin, director of Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, told Al Jazeera that Israel's policy of "targeted killings" only triggers more violence, and increases Palestinian resistance.
"Israel, since the beginning, knows well that when it carries out this kind of killing, a reaction will come directly to that and the civilians will pay a high price," Jabarin said. "But Israel feels that it is not accountable and because of that, it continues with the same policy."
In one of the most high-profile Israeli assassinations, Ghassan Khanafani - Palestinian writer and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1972. One year later, Israel killed three high-ranking Palestine Liberation Organisation leaders, also in Beirut.
Most recently, after almost 25 years of denial and secrecy, Israel admitted killing former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's second in command, Khalil al-Wazir, in a 1988 raid in Tunisia.
While Israel has yet to publicly admit its culpability, Israeli intelligence agents - reportedly using falsified, foreign passports - are suspected of assassinating Hamas leader and co-founder of its military wing Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room in 2010.
|Ahmed Jabari commander of Al-Qassam brigades [Reuters]
"The Israelis operate in the past, as if this is a military problem. It's really a political problem," said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. "It's not going to be solved by killing this bomb-maker or this military commander. The longer that the Israelis stay in that rut, the worse I think things will get."
Legality of extrajudicial killings
American legal expert Alan Dershowitz has argued that some assassinations are legal.
Dershowitz, a professor of Law at Harvard Law School, wrote last week in commentary in the Israeli daily Haaretz that "targeting only terrorists and Hamas military leaders - is completely lawful and legitimate".
"It constitutes an act of self-defense pursuant to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and universally accepted principles of international law," Dershowitz said.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, however, states that all individuals have the right to life, liberty and security. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also says the right to life must be protected by law, and "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived" of that right.
According to the United Nations' "Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions," governments must prohibit such executions and ensure they are considered offenses under their state's criminal laws.
"Exceptional circumstances, including a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked as a justification of such executions," it says.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, which sets out the laws of war as applied to civilians and applies to the occupied Palestinian territories, also affirms that individuals are protected against willful killing and shall be granted the right to a fair trial.
According to a report released in 2010 by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Israel refused to admit carrying out "targeted killings" for decades.
"There is no policy, and there never will be a policy or a reality, of willful killings of suspects … The principle of the sanctity of life is a fundamental principle of the [Israeli army]," it quoted the Israel Defense Forces as saying.
However, in November 2000 Israel admitted conducting assassinations.
Israel has argued its use of assassinations was legal under international humanitarian law because they are carried out in self-defence, and because the Palestinian Authority wasn't properly investigating and prosecuting acts of "terrorism", including suicide bombings in Israel.
Israel also rejected the assertion that the laws of occupation apply to its control over the occupied Palestinian territories, and that instead it was engaged in an international armed conflict with the Palestinians.
"What they're saying is that, 'we're under the laws of war. We're not under the law enforcement model that pertains to occupation,'" said George Bisharat, a professor of law at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law.
"Sometimes in the combat reality, the only real option is to eliminate."
- Mark Regev, Israeli spokesman
In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court restricted the practice of "targeted killings", stating it was only permitted against individuals "directly participating in hostilities", and only if arrest was not possible and the risk of harming civilians meets the "proportionality requirement" prescribed under international humanitarian law.
The court also mandated that an independent investigation be carried out after each killing. But these requirements are rarely, if ever, followed.
"Who judges all that and where is that information ever exposed? It never is," Bisharat said. "I think many of these killings are at least problematic and very likely illegal. But even if they weren't, even if they met the legal standards, they aren't going to be accepted as legal because they simply cannot be convincingly rationalised and defended."
Regev, the Israeli spokesman, said it is preferable to arrest and bring "terrorists" to court, but that is not always possible.
"Sometimes in the combat reality, the only real option is to eliminate," said Regev.