Targeted killings considered key part of defense policy
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Saturday, June 28, 2003
Ram-On, Israel -- Across a picturesque valley in northern Israel, a field of sunflowers sways in the afternoon breeze under a scorching sun. Suddenly, two figures leap across a ditch and head for a hillside. One is carrying a semiautomatic rifle.
The wail of sirens shatters the bucolic calm near the farming village of Ram-On, and two jeeps and an all-terrain vehicle race toward the suspicious men. A dog leaps out of a vehicle, pinning one of them to the ground. His companion is soon captured by three soldiers in camouflage.
It was all part of a recent training exercise for the Israeli border police along the "seam line," the invisible boundary that separates the West Bank and Israel. Despite its peaceful appearance, Ram-On, which lies southeast of the Israeli port city of Haifa and near the West Bank town of Jenin, has become a terrorist commuter route for Palestinian suicide bombers entering Israel.
"This is the reality we are dealing with every day and every night," Lt. Col. Fero Ziyad, deputy commander of the Israeli border police, said of the training exercise. This week alone, Fero said, his soldiers stopped four potential suicide bombers. His unit has also failed, he added.
On Thursday, they captured a 15-year-old Palestinian youth but only after he gunned down an Israeli telephone engineer in a nearby village. Last month, a young woman traveled six miles from Jenin to the Israeli town of Afula loaded with explosives and blew herself up at the entrance to a shopping mall, killing three people.
Aided by sophisticated camouflage and the latest technology, Fero's unit waits undetected in underground bunkers for up to 72 hours, using high- resolution Loris night vision cameras to relay pinpoint information on suspicious movements up to a mile away.
At the same time, Israel is also constructing a "separation fence" around the West Bank of concrete walls, ditches, patrol roads and electronic sensors. The 186-mile barrier, which the Palestinians bitterly oppose and say is evidence of Israel's rejection of the road map peace plan, is expected to be completed within the next 12 months.
But Israeli security chiefs say their most potent deterrent is also the most controversial -- the targeted killings of militant leaders.
Two weeks ago, Israeli helicopter missiles attacked Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi while his jeep traveled through Gaza City. Rantisi survived, but a bodyguard and two bystanders were killed, including a young women. On Wednesday, two more people died when Israeli missiles hit a car in the Gaza Strip that the Israelis said was packed with mortar shells to be fired at Israeli settlements. Palestinians said the victims were innocent bystanders.
Michael Tarazi, a Palestinian Authority legal adviser, says the Israeli attacks prevented a cease-fire pact from being reached earlier this week.
"We were very close to having an agreement. Unfortunately, there are ongoing Israeli measures that make it difficult for us to finalize that agreement," said Tarazi, referring to Wednesday's missile attack.
Israeli human rights groups have also denounced the targeted killings.
"The assassinations perpetrated by Israel in recent months are a violation of the right to life as guaranteed by Israeli law and international law and constitute extra-judicial executions," said Yael Stein of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
But Israeli leaders are convinced their hard-line policy is halting terrorist attacks and persuading militant leaders to accept a cease-fire, which is now expected to be formally announced on Sunday.
"The Palestinians are beginning to understand that their own interests oblige them to end terror, violence and incitement," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Thursday. "Their eyes were opened by the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and their commanders who made it absolutely clear how much the long arm of the Israeli army knows how to reach the terrorist leaders in any place at any time."
According to a senior Israeli army officer who asked not to be named, the killings have "massively reduced" the number of terror attacks from its peak in March 2002, when more than 130 Israelis were killed.
"If we hadn't hit those terrorist leaders, we would be in a much worse situation today," he said. "In June alone, we have had two attacks, but at least 17 more have been stopped."
The same source also rejected accusations that the policy exposes innocent Palestinians to unnecessary risk.
"We have invested massive sums in developing the technology and ability to launch pinpoint strikes at known terrorists with the minimum possible loss of innocent lives," he said. "We have spent huge amounts of time and money calling back helicopters armed and ready to strike, just because we discovered a target had his wife or children or an unknown civilian with him."
A top official of Israel's Shin Bet secret service added that the mass arrests and targeted killings had not only decreased the number of terrorist attacks but created a leadership vacuum.
"It takes time for them to learn the skills of bomb-making," he said. "Every time we take an expert terrorist out of the game, for the next two or three weeks we see new guys blowing themselves up. It's become a known by-product of their learning process."