Israeli Experts Defend Targeting Of Palestinian Militants

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli analysts said Friday the policy of targeting militant leaders has proved effective in the war against terrorism and prevents more casualties.

They were responding to claims by the Palestinian Authority that Israel has assassinated 30 leading activists during the violence of the past three months.

During a meeting of the parliamentary foreign affairs and defense committee this week, Israel's chief of staff stopped just short of admitting that Israel has a policy of eliminating militant leaders.

Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz told lawmakers that security force members are permitted "in principle" to kill "those people who have been clearly identified" as planners or perpetrators of attacks against Israelis.

Those who threaten civilians and security forces, Mofaz said, "expose themselves" to an Israeli response. He conceded that arresting suspects was preferable, he said if that was not an option and a "real danger" existed to Israeli forces, "it is allowed in principle to act to remove the danger while attacking the source of danger."

During the first six weeks of the continuing Palestinian uprising, Israel pursued a policy of returning fire when fired upon. Around mid-November, security forces changed tactics and began to pursue a more proactive policy against suspected ringleaders.

PA Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo has called Prime Minister Ehud Barak a "war criminal" and charged that Israel was pursuing a policy of assassination. If it did not end, he said, negotiations would be "futile."

Reserve Army Colonel Raanan Gissin, an analyst and policy advisor to Likud leader Ariel Sharon, said Friday Israel was not carrying out an "assassination policy."

"Israel uses a variety of measures to bring about the cessation of violence," said Gissin in a telephone interview. He said Israel had to "find a way to pinpoint or target" the source of attacks "without hurting the general [Palestinian] population."

Using gunfire or firing tanks into an area incurs "large-scale collateral damage," Gissin said, something Israel sought to avoid.

The purpose was not to kill militants, but to put them "off balance" so that they will have to spend their time and resources defending themselves instead of perpetrating attacks.

"It's not a policy. We don't have a hit list to kill people," he said.

Ely Karmon, senior researcher at the International Policy Institute on Counter-Terrorism agreed that Israel's approach was acceptable.

In the current "low-intensity war" situation, Israel could not use military might, he said.

It was "clearly more moral" to target individual militants than fight against an entire civilian population, which has a negative impact and was anyway ineffective.

Karmon cited the case of death of Fathi Shakaki, leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad in 1995. Israel was accused of, but never admitted to, killing Shakaki, who was gunned down in Malta.

According to Karmon, Islamic Jihad, which had previously carried out successful terrorist attacks, was thrown off balance for years. Its current leader admitted recently that the death of Shakaki had been like an "earthquake" for the organization.

The same was true of Hamas in 1996, when Yiyhe Ayash, the master bombmaker linked to attacks, which killed and maimed scores of Israelis, was killed by a booby-trapped cell phone.

Gissin said this was "one measure" Israel could use to reach terrorists without hurting the Palestinian civilian population, while preventing militants from killing innocent Israelis.

Although Barak has offered the PA more concessions than any of his predecessors, he has, ironically, been identified by Palestinian officials as an Israeli leader they hope to see stand trial for war crimes before an international tribunal.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi says the PA is "collecting data, collecting the evidence [and] documenting what is happening" as part of this campaign, and will coordinate with Arab states and the United Nations.

Gissin dismissed the charges of war crimes as "ludicrous" and warned that the Palestinians should be careful about demanding a reckoning because "all the heads" of the PA have blood on their hands.

Senior PA officials linked to major acts of terrorism include Amin al-Hindi, who heads Arafat's General Intelligence Service. He has been linked to the 1972 attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich.

Arafat himself, according to published, expert accounts, gave the order for Palestinian gunmen to shoot dead American Ambassador Cleo Noel and two other diplomats taken hostage at the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1973.

The Palestinian leader was denied access to the United States for years after that, until he was rehabilitated with the advent of the Oslo peace process in 1993.

Washington had to scramble at the time allow Arafat, as leader of a terrorist organization, to enter the country to sign the first Israeli-PLO agreement with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Clinton at the White House.