Phil Reeves: One year on, Israel persists with death squads

They have blown up cars and kitchens. They have fired missiles from combat helicopters hovering several miles away. They have picked off their victims from afar with high-powered snipers' rifles. There are even plausible claims that they – or their collaborators – have planted explosive devices in telephone receivers and car headrests that blow off a man's head in an instant.

Israel's death squads have not lacked ingenuity in the manner in which they have pursued their government's policy of assassinating suspects in the 14-month war with the Palestinians.

Exactly a year has elapsed since Israel first restored extra-judicial killings to its repertoire of military tactics in its efforts to suppress what began as a popular uprising, turning slowly into an armed conflict.

The exact numbers of the victims vary – the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, who personally approves all such killings, admitted to 20 to 30 in a recent Newsweek interview. But he has stated in the past that Israel will sometimes deny its undercover operations, and refuse to comment on others.

There is little doubt the figure is larger. Statistics collated by the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) show that at least 59 Palestinians have been assassinated in the past year, including 21 passers-by. Even this may be an underestimate.

The international community has repeatedly condemned the killings, saying they are illegal and that, in the long run, they increase violent resistance to Israel's occupation.

Human rights groups have raised many urgent concerns, from the manner in which Israeli intelligence selects targets – which is not open to scrutiny by any judiciary – to evidence that some victims could have been arrested, instead of killed.

"State enforcement of a policy of assassinations is in direct contravention of international human rights law, and especially of the right to life and the right to fair trial," a statement from the PHRMG said yesterday, "People suspected of illegal activities must be arrested and brought to trial, even in a situation of armed conflict."

But Israel has continued. It argues they are pre-emptive strikes against attacks on Israelis – notably suicide bombers, who have killed 56 people in Israel since this intifada began. It makes no secret of its methods – Mr Sharon boasted this week that "not a day goes by in which we do not succeed in striking at the murderers".

On 8 November last year, in Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town on the edge of Bethlehem, Israeli combat helicopters blasted missiles into a pick-up truck. They got their man – Hussein Abayat, 34, a gunman from Fatah, the movement nominally controlled by the Pales-tinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Posters of Abayat in paramilitary fatigues posing with a large machine-gun still adorn the walls of Bethlehem, where he – like all Israel's victims – is considered a martyr. But the assassins also killed two middle-aged women who happened to be passing, murders that did not discourage the Israel army from congratulating itself on a successful "targeted killing". A monument to the two woman stands where they died.

But the most notorious assassination came at the end of August when Israeli helicopters hovering over the West Bank town of Ramallah fired two missiles through the windows of the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa, 64, decapitating him as he sat in his swivel chair. As the leader of an established PLO faction – who according to Palestinians was a politician rather than a member of the PFLP's military wing – he was the most senior figure to be picked off by the Israelis.

Seven weeks later, the PFLP sought revenge, by infiltrating a Jerusalem hotel and assassinating Israel's Tourism Minister, Rechavem Zeevi, whose support for ethnically cleansing the West Bank and Gaza of Arabs had long made him an enemy of the Palestinians.

Israel's counter-attack – the largest invasion of Palestinian-run areas in West Bank towns since the Oslo process began – is still unfinished; Israeli troops were still in Jenin and Tulkarm last night. The evidence suggests Israel will now step up the pace of extra-judicial killings.

The pressure from the United States has diminished, not least because America will surely resort to similar tactics in its "war on terror". This week, Raanan Gissin, a spokes-man for Mr Sharon, said Israel will now "be using, when necessary, guerrilla warfare against terrorism rather than large-scale forces moving into the area ... We'll rely more on [military] intelligence." Even Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, who is routinely portrayed in the press as a Nobel peace prize-winning "dove", makes no apology for Israel's methods.

This week Mr Peres was confronted in Paris by a parliamentarian who questioned him over the "murder of Palestinian activists". He retorted that the French had "no experience" of "suicide terrorist attacks", saying that the "the moment a terrorist sets out, it is impossible to stop him. He is ready to die anyway."

But this is unlikely to silence Israel's critics. They say that, in the case of many victims, there was no evidence that they were on a mission to attack Israelis, let alone that they were suicide bombers

Photo: A woman weeps over the body of slain Palestinian Issa Dabbabsi before his funeral in the Yata village south of Hebron November 8, 2001. An Israeli undercover unit murdered Dabbabsi and wounded two others people in Yata, Palestinian witnesses said.

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