According to the Torah, if the government of Israel fails to defend its citizens against Arab terror, can civilians conduct vigilante strikes against the Arabs in order to dissuade them from engaging in further acts of terror?
This question is very painful, stemming from the fact that the security situation in Israel has included a weekly bombardment of terrorist acts directed against the Jewish people. Answering this question also involves some very serious contemplation.
There are two situations concerning security that must be discussed before we can arrive at an answer. One involves imminent danger, where immediate action is needed to save one’s life or the life of fellow Jews. The other situation occurs when actions are taken in an ongoing battle against enemy aggression.
The law is clear that if someone comes to kill you, you must act to kill him first.  So too, if one sees that an assailant is pursuing a Jew to kill him, the murder must be prevented, even if it means killing the pursuer. If however, an Arab throws a stone at a car and then runs away, one is not allowed to kill him as he flees, since the situation of immediate danger has passed.
Nonetheless, in a climate of ongoing terror, like in Israel today, where preventative strikes or acts of retribution are carried out against Arab targets, these actions are the sole responsibility of the government and army, and not of individuals. This is because the nation is guided by other halachic (legal) guidelines when it comes to national security. The nation is not guided by the laws of the pursuer, but by the rules of war. This is because the commandment to conquer the land of Israel and to keep it in Jewish hands, with all of the military connotations that this implies, is a commandment incumbent upon the nation as a whole.
Should individual Jews try to take the law into their own hands and solve the problems of the nation by becoming “Rambos?” No, this can lead to disaster. As the Netziv of Volozhin writes: “It is clear that it is in the benefit of the Jewish People in their wars to be strongly unified in their land in order to help their brothers. Therefore, should one of the tribes separate itself from the nation to act militarily on its own, this would weaken the nation against its enemies. These people themselves become “pursuers” of the Jewish people.”
This means that vigilantes in Israel hinder rather than help Israel’s fight against its enemies. Even in a situation where the government of Israel has not yet found the solution to wipe terror out completely, it is still forbidden for its citizens to take retaliatory actions, since this undermines the unity that is vital to the nation.
1. Rashi, Mishpatim, 22:1.
2. Rambam, Laws of Murder and Self-Preservation, 1:6.
3. Ramban, Supplement to the Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Commandment 4.
4. HaRav Shaul Yisraeli, Eretz Hemda, Pg. 13.
5. Netziv of Volozhin, Haamek Shealah, 142, Folio 184 Column A.