Israel under fire for its use of targeted killings


JERUSALEM — When Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman faced questions Monday from European diplomats over Israel’s suspected role in the Dubai assassination of a Hamas militant, he responded with familiar indignation: Why is Israel always the first to be blamed, he asked.

Perhaps no other country’s use of assassinations has, in turn, been more scrutinized, condemned and celebrated than that of Israel. The policy is not likely to change, analysts and diplomats say, because such killings, from Israel’s
point-of-view, have proven effective in fighting a non-conventional
enemy. And despite legal questions and international backlash, Israel usually has emerged unscathed.

Confronting a hostile region, Israel sees targeted killings as an essential tool in decapitating militant groups or putting them on the defensive, experts say.

“They seem to be extremely focused on this kind of tactic,” said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East and now scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“This is the price of living in the neighborhood,”
he added. “It’s a symptom of the ongoing confrontation and their
perceptions about the long war. Both sides perceive that acting, even
with the negative consequences to image and public diplomacy, is still
effective and it’s going to continue.”

Israel is
certainly not the only nation to engage in targeted killings. Despite
presidential orders to restrict political assassinations, the U.S. has
engaged in targeted killings of terror suspects in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, usually with airstrikes. European spy agencies have also been accused of assassinations.

In 2001, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine shot and killed Israel’s tourism minister at a Jerusalem hotel. Two months earlier, Israel had assassinated the group’s general secretary.

Israel, unlike
most countries, has been relatively open and public in defending its
use of targeted killings. In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled the
practice justified in some instances under international law.

In addition, countless books and movies have
mythologized the Israeli spy agency Mossad’s knack for revenge, as
romanticized in the film “Munich” about an Israeli hit squad that
hunted and assassinated those implicated in the murder of Israeli
athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

But when such activities occur on foreign soil, and
evidence emerges implicating Israeli agents, the nation has often found
itself under fire.

After the exposure of a 1997 attempt to poison Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Jordan, Israel
was not only pressured by the Jordanian king to deliver an antidote, it
also agreed to release another imprisoned Hamas leader as part of the

But Israel had the last word, one might say. The released man, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike seven years later.

In the Dubai killing, Israel has refused to confirm or deny its role, though Dubai authorities say they’ve collected evidence implicating the Mossad.

Israel resorts to
assassination, analysts say, because its superiority in military might
only goes so far in defeating underground cells of militants and
suicide bombers.

Such limits were apparent in the perceived failure
of the 2006 Lebanon War and the mixed results from the Israeli
military’s offensive in the Gaza Strip a year ago.

“Targeted killings is a tool that is sometimes necessary,” said Yoram Schweitzer, senior fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It’s a very delicate instrument, but as long as it is not used that often, it works.”

He said the Mossad’s reported 1978 assassination of
Palestinian militant Waddie Haddad, who was said to be poisoned by a
box of tainted chocolates, led to the collapse of Haddad’s terrorist

Critics, however, question the legality of Israel’s use of targeted killings and say the violence only leads to retaliation. Several years of targeted killings in Gaza have done little to weaken Hamas’ hold on the enclave, they say.

Though international attention usually focuses on attacks taking place on foreign soil, Israel’s military has killed several hundred suspected militants in Gaza since 2000, according to the Jerusalem-based
human rights advocacy group B’Tselem. The group says that the killings
are, at best, a moral and legal gray area and at worst, extrajudicial

“The biggest problem is it’s completely non-transparent,” said B’Tselem Executive Director Jessica Montell.
“They are killing people and saying (the person) was a senior
operative. But we don’t know because nobody has access to that

Israeli commentator Guy Bechor says the hoopla over Israel’s role in the Dubai assassination has actually helped Israel by striking fear in enemies about a “crazy” aggressive nation that should not be messed with.

Many here expect that despite the diplomatic protests from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, whose passports were forged for use by the assailants, international outrage will fade.

“After 9/11, people understand that democracy
sometimes has to be not as clean as we would like it to be,” said
former Mossad agent Gad Shimron.

Behind the scenes, Israel’s
intelligence agency works closely with Western nations against joint
threats, Shimron said. So though foreign governments might lodge public
complaints, he said, “When the door closes, they’ll wink.”

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