JERUSALEM, Aug. 7 (JTA) — Almost universally condemned abroad, Israel’s policy of targeting suspected Palestinian terrorists is drawing widespread support at home — though its efficacy is still up for debate.
Even Washington, Israel’s closest ally, sharply criticized Jerusalem for a helicopter attack last week that killed a top Hamas leader in Nablus. Two boys who happened to be passing by the building as missiles slammed through the third-floor windows of the Hamas offices also were killed.
Inside Israel, however, government policy and army actions enjoy broad approval.
This comes despite some doubts over whether the policy that Israeli officials call “targeted preventative measures” — and which most of the world condemns as “assassinations” — really is effective.
The operation in Nablus, for instance, was criticized by opposition leader Yossi Sarid as carrying too high a risk of collateral casualties.
But even Sarid agreed that the senior Hamas official killed in the attack, Jamil Mansour, should have been “marked to die” as far as Israel was concerned.
And U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News last week that Israel might have “some justification” for the killings if they prevented attacks on Israelis.
Many Israelis, in fact, note the apparent disarray in Palestinian ranks the killings have caused. Some say Israel’s recent success in foiling so many Palestinian terror attacks stems from the fact that the targeted killings have hampered the terrorist organizations, forcing them to send out novices with haphazardly prepared weapons.
Even in Ha’aretz, the most liberal of the Israeli dailies, commentators have lauded the Israel Defense Force actions.
“The leaders of Palestinian terrorism can now be seen through IDF field glasses as they run for their lives and hide in every crevice,” Dan Margalit wrote Tuesday.
His colleague Yoel Marcus similarly supported the policy.
“The policy of assassinations is an interim one, which is described by one of” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “advisers as ‘crisis management.’ It intensifies pinpoint attacks, but does not pull out all the stops, and does not close the door to negotiations,” Marcus wrote. “In the varied menu of escalation possibilities, the policy of assassinations is the least of all evils.”
Among the leading politicians of the left, only Yossi Beilin, justice minister in the former Labor government, consistently has opposed the policy.
Apart from the ethical problem of a government ordering a premeditated killing without judge or jury, Beilin argues, the mounting toll of Palestinian activists eliminated in this way — more than 40 in recent months — carries with it the prospect of Palestinian reprisals.
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority recently prepared a list of 50 Israeli “extremists” it wants arrested, saying it will begin assassinating them if Israel does not crack down.
Palestinians and other Arabs also have put prices on the heads of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, and Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and death threats have been made against Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Moreover, Beilin contends, Israel’s policy makes it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to crack down on militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The targeted killings only serve to radicalize the Palestinian public, Beilin says. Pressure from an inflamed Palestinian public then makes it too dangerous for Arafat to face down the groups by arresting — in many cases rearresting — men on Israel’s most-wanted list.
Even without the killings, however, there is scant evidence that Arafat would contemplate a major effort against the fundamentalist groups. And the logic cited by government officials is precisely the reverse of Beilin’s thinking.
Sharon and his advisers say the policy — which they call “active self- defense” — is justified because it targets Palestinian militants before they can strike innocent Israeli civilians.
In addition, they argue, Israel only eliminates activists when it has concrete information they have been involved in deadly terror attacks or are about to do so, and after the Palestinian Authority has rebuffed Israeli demands to arrest the men.
Moreover, the government believes Arafat still could rein in the violence if he wished.
They contend that by steadily raising the pressure on Arafat, they will eventually force him to face down the extremists in the Palestinian camp.
It was this logic, apparently, that convinced Israeli officials to raise the stakes last week by targeting Mansour and his senior lieutenant, Jamal Selim, in Nablus.
Until that attack, Israel had targeted Palestinians who had masterminded terrorist actions against Israelis.
Mansour and Selim, however, were more than terror masterminds; they were political and religious leaders respected throughout the West Bank. Both had served stints in Israeli and Palestinian jails as men of influence capable of inspiring and directing large-scale operations against Israeli targets.
Targeting Mansour, Israeli analysts said, showed that Israel no longer accepted the distinction the fundamentalist groups’ sought to make between “military” men who carry out the attacks and the “political” handlers who recruit and indoctrinate them.
The killing of Mansour immediately raised questions about the nature of Israel’s “hit list.”
Early in the week, officials read on television the names of seven wanted Palestinians Arafat has refused to arrest.
The unusual announcement raised speculation that Israel had in effect pronounced a death sentence on the men, prompting Egypt’s foreign minister to denounce the Sharon government as a “gang of assassins.”
Does Israel’s list include the leader of the Palestinian militias in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti? On Saturday, Barghouti’s bodyguard was wounded when Israeli helicopters fired on a convoy of cars near Ramallah.
Some Palestinian sources said Barghouti, leader of Fatah’s Tanzim militias, was in the convoy, while others said he was in his office at the time. It was unclear whether Barghouti was the intended target, though the Palestinians sought to milk the incident for its full propaganda benefit.
Israel security sources said they were aiming for Barghouti’s aide, who had been involved in numerous terror attacks during the past 10 months of violence.
Just the same, the sources did not rule out that the operation could serve as a warning to Barghouti.
Does the hit list also include Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the crippled cleric who leads Hamas and was Mansour’s immediate superior?
Does it include Palestinian ministers? Perhaps even Arafat himself?
Last week, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom told TV viewers that Arafat was not a target — though he speculated that, “if the deterioration continues,” there could come a time when Israel’s Cabinet might consider barring Arafat from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Monday, however, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer stated that he was personally responsible for the Palestinian leader’s safety, and that “no harm would come to” Arafat.
While the policy of targeting militants enjoys unanimous approval within the Cabinet, there have been signs of discord this week between the prime minister and his top Labor lieutenants — Peres and Ben-Eliezer — over Sharon’s refusal to engage in political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority as long as violence continues.
The Labor ministers say they are not advocating “talks under fire,” but rather “talks about a cease-fire,” which need not be seen as a sop to Arafat.
But Sharon is adamant, and tensions are said to be mounting within Israel’s innermost policymaking circle.