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«Since the current violence in the Middle East erupted in September 2000, over 100 Palestinians have been targeted by the Israeli army. The Israeli ...»

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The Israeli Policy of Targeted Assassinations - the

View of Its Own Media

Dr. Saul Zadka

Since the current violence in the Middle East erupted in September 2000, over

100 Palestinians have been targeted by the Israeli army. The Israeli

Government has consistently employed such tactics over that period as part of

its counter warfare against militant individuals, usually members of Islamic

organizations, but also card-carrying members of the Fatah, headed by

Yasser Arafat.

This is not necessarily a declared policy. Israel had neither confirm nor denied any responsibility for most of the assassinations, arguing that they target suicide bombers, ticking bombs, on their way to detonate themselves amidst densely populated areas. It has also gone after their technical staff and the leaders who dispatch the bombers. In the first week of July, the Israeli military authorities have declared that there are no longer any senior wanted men on their hit list, as all of them were either killed or arrested.

This policy, however, failed to prevent suicide bombings. (In 2001 alone 208 Israelis were killed, most of them in suicide attacks. The casualty toll was even higher the following year.

In total, in a space of twenty months, more than 550 Israelis, most of them civilians, were killed). Its advocates, on the other hand, maintain that without resorting to such military operations, the casualty toll would have been far higher. Notwithstanding, this policy has come under both domestic and international criticism. Western governments and human rights organizations have labeled it extra judicial killing.

The policy raised a few key questions: Can a democratic country adopt a policy of executions? Is this policy guided merely by security considerations, or are there also some measures of political wisdom behind it? Does this policy strengthen the terrorists resolve, thus achieving the opposite outcome? Does it enhance their prestige, turning the assassinated into martyrs? Is it merely a policy of vengeance?

Assassinations of what it perceived as Arab terrorists has been part of Israel defense policy after Six Day War in 1967, when Palestinian violence was intensified by its protagonists, with the help of some Arab states. Until then the conflict in the Middle East was conventional, between the armed forces in the region. The Palestinian armed struggle was C:\Documents and Settings\spaquet\Desktop\pasha.doc confined to border skirmishes and isolated raids into civilian homes from the West Bank and Gaza Strip which were ruled at the time by Jordan and Egypt respectively.

Targeted killings consisted an integral part of the Israeli secret services when various Arab organizations shifted their activities from the ME to Europe against Israeli and Jewish objects. It came to climax after the massacre of the Israeli athletes during the Olympic games in Munich in 1972. Agents of the Mosad, under the direct order of the then PM, assassinated most of the terrorists, members of the Black September organization, held responsible for the attack in which 11 Israelis were murdered. The success of the operation, which took place in various European cities, set a precedent within the intelligence community in Israel.

From then on, targeting what was regarded as individual threats to the country’s security had become part and parcel of its tactics. But unlike the hunt for Black September militants which was almost purely motivated by revenge, the following operations were based on security considerations. Israel took upon itself to eliminate not only Palestinian terrorists, but also Iraqi nuclear scientists, Egyptian missile technicians and other Arabs who were engaged in hostile activities against its vital interests.

In at least two cases, assassinations of senior terrorists crippled their organizations. In 1979, in the French Riviera, Israeli agents killed Zuher Muhsein, the leader of the Pro Syrian Al Saiqa group. In 1995, in Malta, the head of the Islamic Jihad, Fathi Sheqaqi, was shot dead by them. But in most cases assassinations appeared to strengthen the resolve of the organizations in question. In 1988, in Tunis, an Israeli special unit killed Abu Jihad, one of PLO top decision makers. In 1992 Israel was behind the assassination in South Lebanon of Abbas Musawi, the Secretary General of Hizbullah. In 1996 agents of the Internal agency, Shin Bet, took the life of Yehya Ayash, who masterminded Hamas suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. These two attacks did not reduce the military capability of the groups and paved the way for more violence to come.

However, those isolated operations, for which Israel has never officially claimed any responsibility, can not be compared to the policy of targeted assassinations that Israel has adopted since the outbreak of the current armed Intifada. The rules of the game have completely changed. The present assassination policy is directly tied to the wave of suicide bombings which have been perpetuated by all the Palestinian groups, religious and secular alike: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, The PFLP, the DFLP, the Fateh, the Tanzim, the Al Aqsa Brigades and some elements connected to the Hizbulla and Al Qaida. This time it is an Israeli consistent policy which advocated the notion that a mass retaliation policy, coupled with other military measures could reduce the level of violence against Israeli citizens.

The killings:

Between 9 November 2000 and 17 June 2002 more than 75 Palestinians who were on Israel’s wanted list were killed by its security forces. 14 bystanders, some of them children, were also killed in these attacks, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of those killed were senior leaders of militant organizations, including district commanders and ‘’master suicide bombers’’. One of them was Abu Ali Mustafa Zabri, the Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was killed while sitting in his Ramallah office on 27 August 2001 1.29 targeted Palestinians were killed by helicopter gunfire. The rest were ‘’eliminated’’ by various methods: sniper gunfire, tanks, remote controlled bombs, undercover units, planting explosive devices and exchange of fire.2 Hussein Abayat, for instance, a familiar militia leader in the Bethlehem district, has been killed by air-to-surface rockets from an Israeli helicopter when a missile was fired into his car on 8 November 2000. Samih Malabi, a Fatah activist from the refugee camp of Kalandia, near Ramallah, was killed when a booby-trap mobile phone exploded next to his head, a method which mirrored previous Israeli tactics.3. Another high profile killing took place on 13 February, when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles at a car in Gaza Strip, killing Massoud Ayyad, a member of Yasser Arafat’s elite Force 17 bodyguard unit.

In Nablus, one of Hamas’s top ‘’engineer’’, Ibrahim Udah, was killed when his car was blown up on 23 November 2000.

On the first day of the year 2001 the IDF killed Thabet Thabet, the General Secretary of Fatah in the town of Tul Karem. In Jenin, Eyad Hardan, head of the military wing of the Islamic Jihad in Samaria district, who was under Palestinian ‘’protective arrest’’ was killed outside his prison by an explosive device planted in the public phone to which he was called 4 On 5 May 2001, the head of the Islamic Jihad in Judea district was targeted by a sniper fire. Two months later, on 1st July, three more of the Jihad’s activists were killed by a helicopter. On 17 July, the Hamas commandor in Bethlehem area was killed with his deputy during a family gathering as were two other key Hamas militants who were killed a week later, on 30 July, when a missile penetrated the window of a flat in Nablus. The attack provoked an outrage throughout the region and drew criticism in Israel as well as in the West since four more Palestinians, two journalists and two children lost their life during the incident. On 6 August 2001 another Hamas member was killed in Tul Karem.

On 23 0ctober, one of Hamas’ wanted leaders, Ayman Halawa, was killed after an explosie device planted in his car was detonated. In Hebron, another Hamas member was killed by The killing prompted the assassination of Israel’s minister of tourism a few weeks later by the same organization.

2 (PHRMG (Palestinian Human Rights) Monitor.

3 Washington Post,,8.1.01 4 (B’Tselem, special report, 6.4.01) a gunship missile on 31 October 2001. The IDF had another successful hit when it killed the man to top its Hamas most wanted list, Abu Hunud, near Nablus in 25 November 2001. He and two of his assisstants were killed while driving their car near Nablus. On January 15 2001 Israel reached Ra’d Karmi, one of the Tanzim chief commandor in the West Bank.

On 6 March 2002, Abu Halawe, a top officer with the ‘’Al Aqsa Brigades’’ founded during the conflict by Fatah activists, was gun down by a helicopter, alongside two colleagues, outside Ramallah.

The assassinations, only some of which are listed above, were part pf a systematic policy adopted by the Israeli leadership, both under Barak’s labour party government and Sharon’s Likud party coalition. Mostly, the followe d an unprecedented wave of Palestinian suicide bombings which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in crowded buses, market places, shopping moles, weeding halls, night clubs, discotheques, restaurants, cafés, city squares and other public venues.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to measure the success of this policy. True, killing most of the wanted alleged terrorists has not put a stop to violence against Israeli civilians. In fact, re-occupying the territories as Israel had done in June 2002, proved to be more effective.

However, the Israeli General Staff argues that without eliminating the militants, the country’s casualty toll would have been much higher. Israel has always had a policy of selectively assassinating known terrorists. But this new policy casts a far wider net, targeting not only people engaged in terrorism, but also those who coordinate or direct others to perpetrate violence against civilians and soldiers. 5. The military establishment concluded as early as December 2000 that the confrontation would continue for long time and therefore force the IDF to adopt a different approach. A senior defence official emphasized then that Israel had to free itself from the pattern of ‘incidents and responses’ and instead resort to pre -emptive attacks. 6 Israeli officials tend to refer to the assassination policy as ‘’targeted killing’’, ‘’intercepting’’, or ‘’pinpoint operations’’. They refuse to call the process ‘assassination’, because, they maintain, the targets are not political leaders, but the terrorists themselves.

In Hebrew, the definitions are vary - from ‘targeted thwarting’’, the government’s preferred phrase, to the news media simple and most popular words like ‘liquidations’ or ‘elimination’.7 Many Israelis view the policy with moral arguments as well. The assassinations are surgical operations, they say, which reduce the likelihood of hitting innocent people. According to the Israel-based International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, the tactic is aimed at the terrorists themselves, eliminating the need for heavy weapons for bombing indiscriminately…8 ’ Washington Post, 8.1.2001.

Ha’aretz, 4.12.00.

New York Times Magazine, 9.12.01.

E. Karmon, NTM, 9.12.2001

The Criticism:

The policy of targeted assassination has attracted a great deal of international criticism against Israel since its implementation at the end of the year 2000. In its meeting in Brussels on 3 August 2001 the EU denounced Israel for killing Palestinian militants, terming it ‘’a breach of international law that can only lead to further escalation’’. The EU, under Belgian presidency, added that the policy is nothing but a ‘’unilateral provocative action’’ and ‘’illegal under international law’’.9 Even the USA condemned it. On 2nd August, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell described a military operation in Nablus in which two civilians were killed as ‘’too aggressive’’. It just serves to increase the level of tension and violence in the region’’, he said. 10.The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Anan, was said to be ‘’deeply disturbed’’ and called on Israel to stop ‘’what became known as ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian militants as the practice violates international law’’11.

Human rights organizations also condemned the Israeli killings. Amnesty International urged Israel to put an end ‘’to the policy of state assassination’’ and called the US government to review arms transfers to the Jewish state. The organization paid a visit to the region and examined several cases of a few individuals targeted for ‘’illegal execution’’ and concluded that the IDF was in a position to arrest them rather than kill them. ‘’The acceptance by Israel of unlawful killings and the Israeli government’s failure to investigate each killing at the hands of the security services is leading to a culture of impunity among Israeli soldiers - fuelling cycle of violence and revenge in the region’’.12 Two Israeli human rights groups also condemned the killings and one of them even took the matter to the high court.

Arab reaction was of outrage. They saw the operations as an attempt by Sharon’s government to destroy the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinians maintain that since the inception of that policy their various factions have justified increased attacks against Israeli targets as retaliations for the assassinations. An opinion poll conducted by a Palestinian institute revealed that Palestinians consider the policy of assassination as the most harmful aspect of the ‘’Al Aqsa Intifada’’, ranking higher than ‘’the closures, the shellings, the shootings, the incursions and the settler violence’’.13. The Palestinian Human Rights Organization regarded the policy as a ‘’blatant violation of human rights’’. The Palestinian press expressed the view that the policy has served to fuel the cycle of violence. They cited AP, 3.8.01 WSJ, 3.8.01 CNN, 5.7.01 Amnesty International news release, 20.2.01.

JMCC report, October 2001 examples to prove that some of the suicide bombings were carried out by Palestinians who wanted to avenge the blood of those who were assassinated by the IDF. 14.

The Debate:

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