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Israel’s Targeted Killings: Self-Defense or Illegal Murder? - 2004-04-26

Claiming self-defense, Israel has assassinated persons it says are terrorists. Critics say such targeted killings are immoral and hinder the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. VOA's Jeffrey Young reports the opposing views.

Saturday, April 17, 2004. A vehicle moves along a road in Gaza. What the driver does not see in his rear view mirror is an Israeli attack helicopter hovering overhead. Its pilot puts the vehicle squarely in the crosshairs, and presses the "launch" button. A missile screams away from the helicopter toward its prey. A fiery Palestinian voice is silenced by the missile's impact. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, head of Hamas for only a few weeks, had just become the latest target of Israel's campaign against accused terrorists. His predecessor, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was also killed in an Israeli helicopter attack.

Is Israel committing murder or acting in self defense? Each side gives an opposite, and predictable, answer. "Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in the last few years. They have declared war upon us. We are entitled to defend ourselves." Israeli embassy spokesman Mark Regev's justification for killing Hamas leaders and other accused terrorists is passionately refuted by Palestinian U.S. representative Hassan Abdel Rachman. "It is unlawful," he says. "It is immoral. Those are ex-judicial killings."

George Washington University visiting scholar Paul Scham says Israel clearly takes actions it considers necessary without regard for international law and opinion. Mr. Scham asserts that "Israel has never really felt that international law is a major constraint when they understand in their terms that this is necessary for their own defense."

Georgetown University international law professor Anthony Arend says the question of whether Israel can defend its targeted killings depends on how violence between Israelis and Palestinians is defined. "If one conceives," he says, "that there may be an ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Hamas and various other Palestinian groups and perhaps other terrorist groups, then the general answer is in an armed conflict, individuals can be targeted if they are combatants."

Israel has said repeatedly that the Palestinians and their allies indeed are engaged in an armed conflict. Based on that position, Mark Regev then defines who his country considers to be a combatant. "The boundary is very clear," says the Israeli official. "Someone who is directly involved in suicide bombings, in terrorist operations in a hands-on way is a legitimate target."

Palestinian Hassan Rachman insists the real reason Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi were killed was their leadership of a political movement strongly opposed to Israel. "All those figures, like Rantisi and Sheikh Yassin, are political figures," says Mr. Rachman, adding "It has never proven that those people are linked to acts of violence."

Not so, says Mark Regev. Once again, he insists that Mr. Rantisi and other Hamas leaders are clearly implicated in terrorism and thus can be targeted.

"We know that Rantisi was involved in a hands-on way in the sending of suicide bombers to kill innocent civilians," Mr. Regev says, adding "and in so doing, he was a legitimate target."

Mr. Rachman strongly proclaims the innocence of both Sheikh Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. He says the Israelis released them from prison for lack of solid evidence regarding their involvement in terrorism. "Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was in an Israeli prison. Rantisi was in an Israeli prison." Mr. Rachman claims "Both were released because there was nothing that the government of Israel could prove to link them to actual acts of terror."

Mark Regev returns the volley, saying both men were set free not because of their innocence but on the basis of political agreements. He counters with "Both Yassin and Rantisi were incarcerated in Israel. There was very convincing evidence showing their connection with terrorism. They were released in the framework of prisoner swaps in the different political agreements that were made."

The official Israeli and Palestinian positions are opposite and apparently unmovable. Analysts who observe the conflict between the two sides are equally polarized. For example, Judith Kipper, of the Washington-based Middle East Forum, agrees with Israel that it is acting in response to a serious threat. "It's clear," she says "that Israel has the right to defend itself."

Another analyst, former U.S. Ambassador Phillip Wilcox, now with the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, doubts Israel's security justifies engaging in assassinations. He says "I believe quite to the contrary, that Sharon is endangering Israel's security by his policies."

Prime Minister Sharon responds to such criticism by linking these killings and other actions to President Bush's global war on terror. Mr. Bush states that planners and perpetrators of violence must be stopped before they have a chance to strike. Indeed, both the United States and Israeli governments have designated Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and similar groups as terrorist organizations, and thus fair game for military actions. International law professor Anthony Arend believes that Israel is using its close relationship with the United States to accomplish its own goals. "Just as the United States can do many, many things in the international community and not be held accountable," says Mr. Arend, adding "so a state which is so closely allied with the United States, and which the United States protects, finds itself in the same situation."

For some observers, Prime Minister Sharon's anti-terror efforts go beyond forging a common stance with Washington. Professor Scham believes there are underlying political motives behind targeted killings, asserting that by engaging in them "Ariel Sharon cements his hard-line credentials, which are very strong in the rest of the world but have been questioned recently in Israel because of his willingness to leave Gaza."

Pulling Israeli settlements out of Gaza has infuriated Israeli expansionists, who believe Jews have the right to reclaim their historic Biblical lands regardless of contemporary borders. Former Ambassador Wilcox agrees with Professor Scham that the Israeli Prime Minister has his eyes fixed on the ballot box. He says "I think Sharon is a politician, and he's looking to strengthen his right-wing constituency so that he can continue as prime minister." Strengthening such arguments are recent Israeli opinion polls showing a sharp decline in Ariel Sharon's approval rating.

Israel's targeted killing policy is also examined for its impact on efforts to reach a final resolution of the larger Israeli Palestinian dispute. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher reacted with both worry and admonishment to the assassination of Mr. Rantisi. "The United States is gravely concerned for regional peace and stability." Mr. Boucher added "The United States strongly urges Israel to consider carefully the consequences of its actions."

From the Israeli viewpoint, the biggest obstacle to the peace process is the Palestinians' failure to keep security promises they have made. Middle East Forum's Judith Kipper says to revive the peace talks, Washington must reemerge as a mediator both sides can trust. She says "The United States needs to have a clear and unambiguous policy for both the Israelis and the Palestinians what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, and what the United States is prepared to do."

Regardless of whether Israel's targeted killings are lawful and appropriate, they have ended the lives of some accused terrorist leaders. They have also further inflamed the Arab world's hostility towards Israel and its supporters. The killings are seen as a factor in the stalled U.S.-led efforts to reach a two-state solution to the larger Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Brushing aside condemnations, Israel insists targeted assassinations will continue as long as it is faced with terrorist threats.