Israel’s Assassination Policy

As the Clinton administration hurries desperately to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, Israel is undergoing its own political turmoil. Late last year the ultraconservative Likud party attempted to oust Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu to run in 2001 elections (Netanyahu was beating Barak in popularity polls by a large margin).

Barak slyly chose to resign as Prime Minister, which forced early elections for February 2001. This made it legally impossible for Netanyahu (who lives in the U.S. and no longer has Israeli residency status) to run. But the Knesset passed a bill to change the residency status law to allow Netanyahu to run. Nevertheless, Netanyahu stepped down, leaving Ariel Sharon the major Likud candidate. Sharon has overtaken Barak in recent opinion polls. (Sharon, as you will remember, is the man whose paramilitary occupation of the Al-Aqsa mosque touched off the current round of Israeli/Palestinian fighting.)

Sharon kicked off his campaign last week with a declaration that the Oslo peace accords are dead. He vowed that, if elected Prime Minister, he would not allow any of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip to be dismantled (Sharon was one of the main forces behind Jewish settlement construction after the 1967 war). He would not divide and share Jerusalem with the Palestinians. He has also proposed a ridiculous plan to connect the West Bank and Gaza strip with a tunnel, so Palestinians will never travel across Israeli territory again (this doesn’t address the question of what to do about all the Palestinians who work at minimum wage jobs in Israel). And thousands of right-wing Israelis showed their support for Sharon’s views last week in a massive rally in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Barak is losing support within his own party. Polls have shown that Shimon Peres is far more popular than Barak; as a consequence, Barak has sent Peres to meet with Arafat and US negotiators. Peres may soon replace Barak as candidate for Prime Minister in the February elections. In the midst of this political upheaval, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has come under fire from senior IDF field officers. They complain that in recent weeks IDF soldiers in the field are violating open-fire orders because of Mofaz. Said one IDF officer: “When the chief of staff meets with soldiers in the field and urges them to act forcefully in the conflict with the Palestinians, more than a few soldiers interpret these words incorrectly–as if they have permission to act violently toward the Palestinians or to shoot even in cases where the regulations forbid it.”

While it’s heartening to hear that senior field officers have qualms about the violence, they give Mofaz and other high-ranking military officers too much benefit of the doubt. It’s highly likely that Mofaz intends IDF soldiers to shoot as many Palestinian protesters as possible. The Washington Post reports that the Israeli government has confirmed its policy of “systematically targeting and killing Palestinians deemed to be a security threat”–including unarmed Palestinian activists and high-ranking members of Arafat’s Fatah organization, as well as dozens of innocent bystanders. “Members of the Knesset said Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted during a recent meeting of the foreign affairs and defense committee that the government was conducting the assassinations, even as some members pressed him to stop the policy.”

Israel’s High Court of Justice has agreed to hear an appeal against the assassination policy. The case is being brought by Siham Thabet, the wife of Thabet Thabet, a prominent Palestinian peace activist who was gunned down in cold blood as he left his home on New Year’s Eve. Witnesses say that Thabet was unarmed and that IDF soldiers could have arrested him if they chose; instead, they used M-16s to assassinate him. Doctors found 15 bullet holes in his chest.

Thabet was well known for organizing dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians and he helped found the Palestinian Committee for Understanding and Reconciliation with the Israeli People. Many of the dialogues were held at his home. Israeli peace activists, who’ve known Thabet for over a decade, were extremely angry about his murder. They say 8 or 9 people have been killed this way, while Palestinian sources claim more than 20 killed by IDF assassins. –Maria Tomchick

Sources: “Sharon’s ‘Oslo is dead’ declaration confirmed by Likud,” Agence France Presse, 1/10/01; “Sharon suggests tunnel to connect Palestinian blocs,” Ha’aretz, 1/11/01; “Army chief urged to denounce all unauthorized shootings,” Ha’aretz, 1/11/01; “Israelis Confirm Wider Policy of Assassinations,” Washington Post, 1/8/01, page A1; “Israel’s ‘assassination policy’ on trial,” BBC News, 1/9/01; and “Assassinated: Ten targets of Israeli campaign,” The Guardian (UK), 1/11/01.