Moral Questions Surround Israeli Policy of 'Targeted Killings'
By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 2, 2001; Page A01
JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 -- The Abu Khadr brothers, age 10 and 7, were so scrawny
that both their corpses fit on one narrow slab in the hospital morgue's
refrigerator. Bundled together in a flag of green and white, the colors of
Islam, their bodies were torn by shrapnel and their handsome faces frozen in
The Palestinian brothers, who died Tuesday in an Israeli missile attack on
Islamic militants in the West Bank city of Nablus, were the latest
unintended casualties of Israel's campaign of assassinations. Their deaths
brought a spate of diplomatic protests and raised anew difficult moral
questions about Israel's tactics in the guerrilla war with the Palestinians.
Within Israel, there was little domestic criticism of the killings, except
from a dovish minority and a handful of human rights groups. The
assassinations have killed about 40 Palestinians since last fall, at least
13 of them innocent bystanders.
In a poll published last week by the newspaper Maariv, three-quarters of
Israelis surveyed either endorsed the government's handling of the conflict,
including the hits on suspected Palestinian militants, or suggested it was
inadequate; nearly half favored an all-out assault on Yasser Arafat's
seven-year-old Palestinian Authority.
"If we do nothing the terrorists would feel free to act, and there'd be no
danger for them, no threat, no fear for their personal security," said Yuval
Steinitz, a hard-line Israeli lawmaker who has urged an unbridled offensive
to destroy Palestinian institutions and infrastructure. "We have no choice
-- it's the existence of the state of Israel that is under danger here."
Still, even as Israel's security cabinet, a select group of top ministers,
today reaffirmed its policy of assassinations -- known euphemistically here
as "active self-defense" and "targeted killings" -- there were serious
questions about it. Some insist it will not work to suppress the
10-month-old Palestinian uprising, or that it may even make things worse.
And there are concerns, too, that in carrying out what amount to
extrajudicial executions, Israel is forfeiting its self-proclaimed status as
a state based on law and morality.
"It's an ineffective and inefficient policy," said Naomi Chazan, one of the
few Jewish members of Israel's legislature, the Knesset, who publicly
opposes the government's policy. "It breeds more hatred and more terrorism
instead of eliminating or even reducing it. . . . If these people are
guilty, they should be brought to trial, not assassinated."
The missile strike Tuesday killed two top leaders of the Islamic Resistance
Movement, known as Hamas, and six others, including Ashraf and Bilal Abu
The assassinations again put Israel on the defensive internationally. Ever
since a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 people and himself at a Tel
Aviv disco June 1, the United States and its European allies had trained
much of their criticism and pressure on Arafat, condemning the Palestinian
leader for permitting or encouraging violence. But the missile strike
Tuesday elicited unusually harsh condemnations from Washington, London and
other Western capitals. Britain called the assassinations "wrong and
illegal"; the State Department said they were "reprehensible and cannot be
Israel was bracing today for the reprisal suicide bombings that Hamas has
"Revenge Alert!" warned the front-page headline in today's Yedioth
Aharonoth, the country's largest newspaper.
The atmosphere, already tense following the killings of the eight
Palestinians, was further stoked today by their funerals. Tens of thousands
of people marched through the streets of Nablus with the funeral cortege,
shaking their fists in fury and crying for revenge. Masked gunmen sent
volleys of assault-weapon fire into the air and small boys waved Hamas flags
and brandished toy rifles.
A small pipe bomb was discovered and disposed of on the grounds of
Jerusalem's luxurious King David Hotel. A Palestinian was killed in fighting
in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, and the Palestinians refused to attend
a security meeting with their Israeli counterparts, mediated by
representatives of the CIA here.
Defending the assassinations, Israeli security sources insist the murders of
Palestinian militants are having the desired effect, forcing the survivors
to worry more about staying alive than plotting attacks or recruiting
"The continuing killing has an impact in diminishing the capabilities and
expertise and know-how of Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- this accounts for an
increasing number of failures in these operations," said Ziad Abu Amr, a
moderate Palestinian lawmaker who has studied Hamas. "The lack of cadres
affects the level of professionalism."
But Israel has been trying to decapitate and silence Hamas and other
militant Palestinian groups for years, never with complete success. What the
groups lose in experience to Israeli assassinations they often make up for
in enthusiastic young recruits, fired up to exact revenge. Hamas leaders
have been saying for months that they have marshaled dozens of young men
ready to become "martyrs" by blowing themselves up among Israelis. Israeli
security officials take them at their word.
"We are not keen to kill," a senior Israeli army general said in an
interview. "We know that using helicopters to kill Hamas leaders will lead
to a certain escalation for a while. We know the price and we consider it
very carefully. . . . But when we understood that he is involved in
[planning imminent attacks], we had to decide what to do, and to act."
The government has insisted that by killing Palestinian militants, it is
derailing terror operations that could take many Israeli lives. Israel
maintains that it would prefer to arrest the militants or that the
Palestinian Authority arrest them, but the Palestinians have refused.
Instead, Israel says, the suspects are allowed to operate freely in
Israel's argument has proved a hard sell internationally. One reason is that
the army provides virtually no evidence for assertions that certain people
targeted were involved in plotting attacks, and in some instances does not
even bother to provide a reason for their killings.
One notable case involved a Palestinian dentist, Thabet Thabet, 49, who was
shot to death by Israeli snipers in front of his home in the West Bank city
of Tulkarm on New Year's Eve. Thabet was a local political leader of
Arafat's Fatah movement, but he had close ties with Israeli peace activists
who considered him a thoughtful moderate and who were shocked by his
When one top-ranking army officer was pressed to explain the decision to
kill Thabet, he replied, "I can't talk about it, but there were solid
To Israeli human rights advocates, the government's stance on assassinations
-- which they say amounts to "trust us" -- is inadequate. They point to the
record of the Shin Bet, Israel's main domestic security organization, which
for years routinely tortured Palestinian detainees even though the
government's guidelines permitted such practices only if an imminent threat
or "ticking bomb" was involved.
"It's very rare that a case [of assassination] is justified," said Yael
Stein, director of research for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. "In
cases where there's immediate danger to life it can be justified, but those
cases are very rare, and the government is not even close to these very rare
cases. . . . The fact that the minister of defense comes on the radio and
says they were responsible for a bomb or planning another bomb, this is not
In the case of Jamal Mansour and Jamal Salim, the senior Hamas leaders
killed in Nablus Tuesday, the army and security officials insisted the men
were responsible for planning a wave of terror attacks focusing on
Jerusalem. But a five-page summary of their alleged misdeeds, faxed to
foreign correspondents Tuesday night, provided no hard evidence to back up
the government's assertions.
Security sources insist they cannot provide such evidence publicly for fear
of endangering intelligence sources who have furnished the most sensitive
information. Without it, though, Israel is on shaky legal and moral ground,
"A government that claims to be acting according to the rule of law
shouldn't kill people and decide about it behind closed doors," she said.
What's more, many Palestinians and some Israelis argue that the probable
upshot of liquidating prominent militants will be more passion, more
violence and more death, not less.
"Now there are no ground rules, there are no limits," said Abu Amr, the
Palestinian lawmaker. "We are going through a cycle of violence and
counterviolence, and this may have the effect of causing the kind of
situation that everybody tried to avoid -- the all-out confrontation between
Israel and the Palestinian Authority."
Researcher Eetta Prince-Gibson contributed to this report.
� 2001 The Washington Post Company
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