Launched recently with little fanfare, a new Israeli policy of assassinating Palestinian militants held responsible for violence against Jews is beginning to arouse debate.
The first, and very public, demonstration of the new policy was the Nov. 9 missile attack on the car carrying a leader of the Palestinian Tanzim militias, Hussein Abiyat, in Beit Sahur in the West Bank.
Several other high-profile deaths have followed: Hamas bomb-maker Ibrahim Bani Odeh was killed by a remote- controlled bomb in his car in Nablus on Nov. 23. Militant Mahmoud Mughrabi was shot to death Dec. 10 near Beit Jallah in the West Bank. On Dec. 11, in Nablus, Israeli soldiers shot and killed Islamic Jihad militant Anwar Mahmoud Hamran, implicated in 1997 terror attacks in Jerusalem and freed from Palestinian prison when the recent violence began.
Though Israel has never confirmed its suspected role in several of the attacks, at least 10 alleged Palestinian terrorists are believed to have been killed by Israeli “hit squads” since the Palestinian violence began in late September.
Until now, only Israeli Arab legislators voiced many complaints about the new liquidation policy. Among the Jewish public, the deaths of Palestinian terrorists and militia leaders have been overshadowed by the daily Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers – and more recently by the election campaign – and are only now beginning to attract the attention of Israeli leftists and human rights activists.
“I fail to see the difference between state-sponsored terror and terror” carried out by individuals, Zahava Gal-On, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party, told JTA. “If the army possesses incriminating evidence against someone, then efforts should be made to bring him to trial.”
The wave of attacks is reminiscent of the mysterious deaths of Palestinian leaders in Europe throughout the 1970s, following a wave of Palestinian terror that culminated in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
The Israel Defense Force had been threatening for some time to begin initiating activities against Palestinian militants – rather than merely reacting to specific attacks.
Barak said in mid-December that the slight drop in violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was due in part to IDF activities “that don’t always meet the eye.”
Backers of the new system say the Palestinian Authority has made such a policy necessary.
By encouraging military action against Israeli targets, ceasing to arrest terrorist leaders and even releasing terrorists from its jails, the P.A. forced Israel to find ways to fill the security vacuum, backers of the policy say.
The decision to go to a liquidation policy would have to have been approved by the heads of the various security branches as well as by Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Prior to the granting of such approval, there was no thorough and open discussion of the issue in the Cabinet.
Anti-terror experts argue that such operations are a legitimate tactic in what has become a mini-war with the Palestinians.
Those killed “are those who planned terrorist attacks, and by killing them we prevent them from doing so,” said Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan, former head of the anti-terror headquarters at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“There is no specific interest in killing them. If possible, they are being arrested. But if it is a territory which is not under our control, and where detention is impossible without risking soldiers, we prefer killing.”
The growing controversy revolves around two main issues: Is it moral for a sovereign state to engage in terrorist-style activities in the struggle against terrorism? And, if so, are such actions effective?
The operations themselves are not always clean, typifying the dilemma that Israeli policy-makers face.
On Nov. 22, for example, Jamal Abdul Razek, 28, a veteran of Israeli jails, drove from Rafah to Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. According to Israeli sources, Razek had been involved in a number of attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians in the past three months, including an attack on an Israeli school bus near the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom on Nov. 20 in which two adults were killed and nine children wounded.
Israeli intelligence learned that Razek would soon be passing the settlement of Morag, and a commando unit set up an ambush nearby. As Razek’s car approached, the soldiers placed an army truck on the road to block his way. Unfortunately, another Palestinian car passed Razek’s and headed toward the Israeli ambush. Neither car appeared willing or able to stop at the Israeli roadblock.
Soldiers fired at both cars, killing Razek and three other Palestinians. Regional commander Brig. Gen. Yair Naveh later said that Razek was “a filthy terrorist, and it was right to try and stop him.”
Critics, however, suggested that Razek was more valuable alive than dead, as he might have provided valuable intelligence information.
Moreover, the lives of the passengers in the second car – who were later identified as activists in the Tanzim militias, but were not on Israel’s wanted list – could have been spared.
“Sometimes an incident may end up killing the target,” Maj. Gen. Dagan said. “After all, we are dealing with armed men whose arrest is a matter of life and death. However, in most cases we have detained more than we have killed. It seems to me that even these recent cases were killed because the situation developed into a head-on confrontation.”
Critics argue that neither the moral nor the operational aspects of the “executions” system were discussed thoroughly in the Cabinet. Even more significant, perhaps, is the fact that the public somehow remained apathetic to the new policy. Until now, that is.
“It is our policy that everyone is entitled to a trial, even a war criminal like Slobodan Milosevic,” the former president of Yugoslavia, said Najib Abu Rakia, an activist in the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Abu Rakia argued that the authorities deliberately demonized some of the Palestinian targets after they had already been killed, exaggerating their importance.
B’Tselem is expected to release a report on the issue next week. It will likely stir a public debate on the policy.
The issue did surface briefly at a recent meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Knesset Members Gal-On and Naomi Chazan, both of Meretz, as well as Uri Savir of the Center Party, questioned the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, on the liquidation policy. He refused to discuss it in that forum, however.
“We don’t know for sure whether we hit the right people,” Chazan said. But “by now we know for sure that innocent people were killed in the course of action. When a state uses such a weapon, it becomes all too similar to the terrorists themselves.”
Army officials have boasted that the liquidation policy has contributed to the recent drop in violence in the Palestinian territories, as terrorists and militia chieftains worry more about their safety than about planning attacks.
However, Boaz Ganor, director of the anti-terror institute at the Inter- Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, said history has proven such tactics ineffective. In 1992, the army killed Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussawi in Lebanon. Soon after, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was bombed in a possible reaction.
Similarly, the 1996 assassination of Hamas terror mastermind Yehiya Ayash, who was killed by a bomb placed in his cell phone, led to four major terrorist attacks inside Israel.
Of course, it is impossible to know what attacks Ayash might have planned had he remained alive.
On the other hand, Ganor himself cited the 1995 killing in Malta of Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shakaki as an example of a successful hit.
“The killing of the head of that organization was a blow from which the organization has not recovered until this very day,” Ganor said.
His conclusion: “Annihilation should always be the last step. One must always consider whether one can achieve the goal by calmer methods.”