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Israel under fire

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  • Josh Pollack
    Washington Post Assassination s Aftermath Moral Questions Surround Israeli Policy of Targeted Killings By Lee Hockstader Washington Post Foreign Service
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2001
      Washington Post
      Assassination's Aftermath
      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
      Palestinian-controlled territory.

      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
      very convincing."

      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,
      Stein said.

      "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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