Political assassinations during the current Intifada have claimed at least 50 individuals from across the whole political spectrum, including political leaders, activists from military groups and civilians. Although Israel’s policy may have damaged some of the operational capacity of the organisations it targets, its primary effect has been to invigorate the Intifada with fresh waves of popular outrage. One of the objectives of political assassinations in the Sharon era, indeed, is to provoke the Palestinians, thus justifying reprisals that make it impossible to address the political agenda.
Assassinations are rooted in Israel’s political culture, and in that of the Zionist movement before the state’s establishment in 1948.
Before the first Intifada, from 1967 to ’87, the main targets of Israeli assassinations outside the occupied territories were Diaspora PLO cadres, and particularly senior political leaders from the organisation’s various sub- groupings (though most were from Fatah), as well as military cadres suspected of involvement in military attacks against Israel in the West Bank, Gaza or abroad. During this period, a committee to “fight terror” was created at Golda Meir’s initiative, led by General Aharon Yariv. During this “ghost war,” Israel rarely claimed responsibility for the assassinations it carried out.
Within the occupied territories, assassination was not used against political leaders, whom Israel preferred to deport. Extra-judicial executions were used intensively in the Gaza Strip, however, during Sharon’s campaign to suppress the popular resistance movement between 1970 and ’73. The Rimon unit, created by Sharon — who at the time was the military commander of the South — liquidated tens of wanted Palestinian activists according to a list updated monthly. In this way, Sharon laid the foundations upon which Barak would later build the Mista’ravim liquidation units (Israeli special forces dressed like Arabs to infiltrate their targets’ communities).
Extra-judicial killings intensified during the first Intifada. During this period, Israel changed its original policy as formulated in the 1970s, no longer restricting assassinations to a select few senior leaders, but expanding their range to include middle-rank cadres and grassroots activists — and, notably, 25 young Palestinians caught writing political graffiti. Among them, a 14-year-old boy from Jenin, Walid Al-Souqi, was shot point-blank while begging for his life. One hundred Palestinian activists were assassinated during the first Intifada, often at the hands of Mista’ravim units. Israeli and international human rights organisations correctly termed this policy extra-judicial execution. The first Intifada also witnessed the targeting of amateur paramilitary groups allied to Fatah, Hamas and the PFLP. In what may have been the most poignant example of Israel’s extra-judicial assassinations, a Palestinian youth was killed by undercover units while scrawling “Yes to Peace” on a wall on the eve of the 1991 Madrid conference
During the Oslo years (1993-2000), Israel’s assassination policy was mainly restricted to the Islamist opposition. Notable cases included Yehia ‘Ayyash, Mohieddin Al-Sharif, and the ‘Awadallah brothers, all associated with the military wing of Hamas. Additionally, between the signing of the Oslo accord on 13 September 1993 and the PA’s arrival in Jericho and Gaza in mid-1994, Israel worked hard to liquidate what had remained of the paramilitary groups after the first Intifada.
Several features have characterised assassinations in the present Intifada. First, they target Fatah activists as well as Islamists; second, the intensity of assassinations is unprecedented; third, the Israelis are using entirely new methods, including attacks by Apache assault helicopters, Hellfire and TOW (surface-to-surface) missiles and tanks, as well as the shelling of houses.
Official Israeli state institutions have not been the only executors of the assassination policy. Jewish terrorist organisations working independently, and composed of extremist Zionists such as the members of the Jewish Defence League (formerly led by Rabbi Meir Kahana), have also been extremely active. Kahana initially chose the United States as the target of his terrorist operations, before transferring them to the occupied territories. In the US, the murders of Soliman Al-Farouqi and his wife, in addition to the killing of leading Palestinian political activist Alexander Odeh, are only the better-known examples of extremist Zionist terror.
Since independent organisations claim responsibility for such extra-judicial killings, Israel need not fear political or moral repercussions, although the state may have participated at least by providing the perpetrators with moral justification. For example, the June 1980 attempts to kill nationalist Palestinian mayors Bassam Shaq’a, Karim Khalaf and Ibrahim Tawil, carried out by extremist settlers affiliated to an underground Jewish organisation Hamakhteret Hayehudit, could not have taken place without the advanced slur campaign coordinated by the Israeli authorities, not to mention the logistical assistance afforded by the army. The explosives used and the precise information required were quite simply inaccessible to the settlers themselves.
Israel has assassinated a great many Palestinians by violating the sovereignty of other countries, including allies. Approximately 10 assassinations have been carried out on French soil alone since 1972; but that nation is not alone. Many of the victims were not remotely involved in military activities, as illustrated by the cases of Wael Za’itar or Majed Abu Sharar in Italy. The 1998 attempt to assassinate Khaled Mish’al, a senior Hamas political leader, in Jordan shows Israel’s cynical disregard for the sovereignty of an Arab country (and peace partner to boot), which moreover had exerted great efforts to deter violations of Israeli security.
Western collusion in these attacks has been frequent, especially in France, where right-wing racist elements in the police force have shown an eagerness to cooperate with Israeli assassins that would not have been in evidence had other targets been involved — even if those parties had been “real terrorists” rather than leaders of a people struggling to free themselves from colonialism.
Nor are political assassinations restricted to Palestinians alone. Israel has also involved itself in assassinations on the Arab and international fronts in the service of counter- revolutionary forces. For instance, it forged ties of cooperation with French officers in Algeria, and was involved in the assassination of FLN figures there, particularly in Algiers. In addition, Israel participated in the assassination of Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barakeh in 1965, with the blessing of then Mossad head Meir Amit. In Latin America, too, Israel or its mercenaries, sometimes through direct coordination with the Israeli Ministry of Defence or the Mossad, have helped eliminate revolutionary cadres and worked closely with the most dictatorial and brutal regimes. Recent examples include Israel’s participation in the kidnapping of Kurdish PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan and the assassination of Chechen leader Dodayef.
Israel has never assassinated any individual and claimed responsibility for the action before having paved the way with political and media coverage that frames the victim as a terrorist and murderer. Israel ensures Western sympathy by presenting its actions as necessary to avoid the “spilling of Jewish blood” — rhetoric that plays on Western guilt very effectively.
Publicity campaigns that accompanied all the assassinations carried out in Europe during the 1970s referred to Israeli victims of the 1972 Munich operation, which received widespread international condemnation. 20 individuals accused of “masterminding” this operation were killed, although only one had actually been involved in planning it. In much the same way, the assassination of Fatah second-in-command Abu Jihad in Tunisia was justified by linking him to an attack on Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. As for the case of the writer Ghassan Kanafani, Israel did the groundwork by publishing pictures that, it claimed, showed Kanafani with Japanese members of the Red Army Faction who had carried out the attack against civilians at Lydd Airport. In reality, the person in the pictures, who appeared in profile, bore only a vague resemblance to Kanafani.
Israel’s policy of assassination is due partly to power worship, and partly to the fact that it can no longer “protect itself from itself.” Since Menachem Begin left office in 1983, five prime ministers have come to power, all of them, whether Likud or Labour, military men specialised throughout their careers in the “art of killing.” With the exception of Labour Premier Yitzhak Rabin, who served in the regular army (which generally abides by codes of conflict in wartime), they dedicated most of their army careers to Special Units, which nurtured the instinct to “kill without thought.” The current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, established Unit 101, whose task it was to massacre Palestinian refugees attempting to return to their homes and lands near the Green Line throughout the 1950s. Of course, he was also the mastermind behind the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
As for Ehud Barak, he was a member and then commander of Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Squad), of which the primary goal throughout the 1970s was the assassination of Palestinian leaders. During his reign as head of the Central region immediately before the first Intifada, and as chief of staff after 1992, Barak was personally responsible for the activities of the Mista’ravim units, whose assassinations escalated during the first Intifada as noted above. Barak also personally assassinated the Palestinian poet Kamal Nasser at his home in the Fardan quarter of Beirut.
Binyamin Netanyahu was a member of Sayeret Matkal during the time of Barak. Yitzhak Shamir was a high commander in the Lehi terrorist organisation (which rejected the authority of the official Zionist leadership before the foundation of the Israeli state), and was wanted for murdering several British soldiers during the Mandate period. Shamir also helped plan the assassination of UN Special Envoy Count Folke Bernadotte. Due to his “distinguished record,” and although he served in an opposition organisation, Shamir was assigned to the special units section of the Mossad after Israel’s creation.
However unpleasant such conclusions, first-hand killing seems to be an indispensable qualification on the resume of any potential Israeli prime minister today.
Israel’s policy of political assassination enables it to fulfill a number of objectives. The first is revenge — namely, punishing individuals accused of involvement in attacks on Israeli soldiers, settlers or civilians, or against Zionist institutions and organisations outside Israel. Israeli governments have presented this reason as their primary defence and have attempted to frame assassinations as the necessary dispensing of justice.
A second objective is the prevention or disruption of any political or social changes with which the target may be involved.
Third, Israel achieves publicity and intimidation objectives, by sending out the message that it is capable of reaching and punishing its enemies wherever they may be, and thus demonstrating (particularly to its allies) its “awesome” capabilities and power.
A fourth objective of assassinations is deterrence; a fifth is to deprive Palestinian organisations of competent leaders. This tactic has been especially effective in the cases of Abu Jihad (Fatah), Ghassan Kanafani (the PFLP), Yehia ‘Ayyash (Hamas) and Khalil Shiqaki (Islamic Jihad).
Sixth, the current Intifada has revealed a new objective of the assassination policy, namely direct provocation. By fuelling Palestinian anger, Israel creates a pretext for a wider military assault. The cold-blooded killing of five Palestinian security personnel at a check-point in Beitunia on 14 May, while they were sleeping or eating, and the attack on the Hamas media centre in Nablus in late July (killing, among others, two high-ranking Hamas political leaders and two children) are two examples out of many others.
In implementing its assassination policy, Israel has used methods ranging from the crude — attacks on the homes of wanted persons (Abu Jihad) — to the slightly more sophisticated — explosives hidden in telephones (Islamic Jihad activist Ayad Hardan, 4 May; Mahmoud Al- Hamshari, the first semi-official representative of the PLO to France, in Paris, 1972; or Hamas military leader Yehia ‘Ayyash, January 1996); car bombs (Hamas military leader Ibrahim Beni Odeh in Nablus, December 2000); and bombs planted in homes or hotel rooms (Fatah Central Committee member Majed Abu Sharar in Rome, 1981).
These methods, however, have changed considerably during the current Intifada. Since the first few weeks, Israel has sought to portray the uprising as a state of war and thus transform the Intifada into a complete confrontation behind which a wide Israeli consensus can be formed in support of Israel’s use of power and suppression. This has also enabled the adoption of methods that were not traditionally used against civilian populations.
Israel has also turned the reality it has created on the ground, particularly during the Oslo years, to the advantage of its assassination policy: the dismemberment of Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps, as well as the large numbers of Israeli troops stationed on the periphery of Palestinian population concentrations and along the roads, serve it well in this respect. Its important network of collaborators and a population easily monitored through the technological advantages Israel enjoys are additional weapons in its arsenal.
In its most recent attacks, Israel has been using US-made Apache and Cobra attack helicopters capable of striking extremely precise targets and moving at high speed. They are easily manoeuvred, can be used in all weather conditions, and are equipped with sophisticated night vision and navigational capabilities. They were first used in the current Intifada against the head of the Bethlehem Tanzim, Hussein Ubeiyat, killed on 9 November 2000.
Another “innovation” of the current Intifada is the increased use of snipers who monitor their victims carefully, usually from fixed observation positions located in settlements or military installations, both of which are generally constructed on high ground near the periphery of Palestinian concentrations. Targets can be killed at distances of up to 800m. Five out of six sniper operations during the current Intifada have claimed their intended victims. A sniper killed Thabet Thabet, the first political leader assassinated in the current Intifada, a leading member of the Red Crescent Society and Fatah secretary-general in Tulkarem, on 31 December 2000.
Israel’s assassination policy violates the right to life, the most fundamental of all human rights, enshrined in religious, international and even Israeli law. The Israeli army plays the role of informer, attorney, judge and executioner; the decision to kill is implemented with no legal process whatsoever. As Yael Stein of the B’tselem Human Rights Association puts it: “Problems are rife from the initial decision through all stages of the process — problems which render any legal justification Israel could mount irrelevant.”
Sharon is now using this time-honoured policy to eliminate the possibility of any political arrangement with the Palestinians as envisaged by the Mitchell report or the Tenet plan. The current stage is further characterised by the Israelis’ decreasing reluctance to cause casualties among Palestinian civilians. Victims are thus attacked in homes or offices with impunity.
Extra-judicial executions are an historical and institutional part of Israel’s political culture and ideology. Once the Palestinians are dehumanised, it becomes possible to eliminate them, as illustrated in a statement made by Avraham Burg, Knesset chair and candidate of the internal primaries of Labor for chair of the party, on the 2 August episode of the American political programme Nightline. The host asked Burg how, if Israel prides itself on being “a democratic nation based on the rule of law,” it allows its security forces to act as jury, judge and executioner in carrying out assassinations. Burg replied that, in the Western world, the lamb usually had a fair chance before the wolf bit it. In the Middle East, on the other hand, the rules were different: it was a world, he asserted, of Islamic fundamentalists, human bombs, killers, kidnappers, “people you do not want your daughter to marry.” Because the Palestinians are “inhuman,” Burg said, the Israelis could not possibly relate to them as, say, one Scandinavian people to another.
It is this process of dehumanisation that seems to have reached its apogee, and that was the driving force behind the many massacres the Zionist movement committed in 1948, leading inexorably to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.