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More debate over Israel’s ‘targeted killings

JERUSALEM, Oct. 22 (JTA) — Israel finds itself in a bind after the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

Not only do Israeli officials have to come up with a credible response to the slaying, they have to contend with claims that the murder of Ze’evi by Arab militants was little different than Israel’s policy of killing Arab terror ringleaders before they can carry out attacks against Israeli targets.

Israel launched the policy in November 2000, two months after the start of the Palestinian intifada.

Israel has staunchly defended the policy — which it refers to as “targeted preventive measures” — as one of the few plausible responses to the campaign of suicide bombings and drive-by shootings that have marked the Palestinian intifada.

Btu the policy has elicited repeated criticism from the United States — which calls it “unproductive” — and a host of other Western powers.

Last week, Israeli officials were aghast after Denmark’s foreign minister, Mogens Lykketoft, equated the assassination of Ze’evi and Israel’s targeted killings of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

“Political murder in that area is not anything new,” Lykketoft said on Danish television, adding that he does not hold Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat responsible in any way for Ze’evi’s killing.

A senior Israeli official later called Lykketoft, who has a history of incendiary statements about Israel, an anti-Semite and “the most anti-Israel foreign minister in Europe.”

Others also weighed in against him.

“We fail to understand how he can compare terrorists planning or on their way to commit terrorist acts against Israelis with a prominent political figure who has acted always in a democratic way,” said Victor Harel, deputy director general for European affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

Despite the international criticism, few Israelis have come out against the country’s targeted killings of terrorists.

One exception is Gush Shalom — Hebrew for the Peace Bloc — a group led by former legislator and journalist Uri Avnery.

“The system of assassinations and ‘annihilations’ must stop immediately and totally,” the group said in a statement after Ze’evi’s murder on Oct. 17. “Whether the victim is Israeli or Palestinian, the outcome is the same — more tension, hatred and feelings of vengeance, and widening the circle of bloodshed.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical group that is part of the PLO, claimed responsibility for assassinating Ze’evi.

The group said it was avenging the death of its leader, Mustafa Zibri, who was killed in a pinpoint Israeli rocket attack in late August. Israel had accused Zibri of masterminding a string of bombings and other terror attacks inside Israel.

The killing of Zibri was “viewed by the Palestinians as the slaying of a political leader,” said Riad Ali, an Israeli Arab journalist who covers the Palestinian Authority for Israel Television.

While Israeli officials described the slaying of Ze’evi as “a whole new ball game,” Ali said, the Palestinians regarded the murder as part of the same bloody “game” that claimed Zibri’s life.

When Zibri was killed in August, Israeli intelligence officials predicted that the PFLP might retaliate by trying to kill Israeli political figures.

The head of army intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, told the Cabinet at the time that Israel could expect an escalation in Palestinian violence.

All of which prompts the question of whether Israel’s targeted killing of suspected terrorists is an effective tool in its fight against terrorism.

One cannot tell how many lives — if any — were saved by killing Zibri. There does, however, appear to be a direct link between his killing and the murder of Ze’evi — and to the deaths that ensued after Israeli forces moved into positions in six Palestinian West Bank cities at the end of last week, following the assassination.

Israel moved into the cities — Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm and Kalkilya — saying it intended to nab Palestinian terrorists planning attacks on Israelis.

It was Israel’s biggest operation in areas under Palestinian control since the two sides signed their first interim peace accords in 1993. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the ground offensive would end after he was satisfied that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat had begun cracking down on terrorists.

Meanwhile, the Israeli public appears to support the targeted killings policy.

A Dahaf opinion poll released over the weekend — after Ze’evi’s assassination — indicated that 62 percent of Israeli respondents want to continue the policy.

At the same time, 50 percent support continued negotiations with the Palestinians.

Similarly, another poll — this one conducted by Gallup-Israel — showed that 38 percent of Israeli respondents want total war against the Palestinians.

In the same poll, however, another 38 percent said they want “to speed up” negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israelis appear as divided as their leaders about what to do next.

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