Global Policy Forum

Israel’s Dirty War

International Relations and Security Network
December 5, 2008

Allegations that the Israeli military continues to pursue a policy of targeted assassinations in the West Bank, in contravention of partial legal strictures, heightens concerns regarding Israel's ongoing counter-insurgency activities in the territory and their impact on reconciliation efforts. According to details of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) planning meetings and resultant operations, made public for the first time in a weekend Haaretz report, top IDF brass have signed off on a number of operational plans involving the assassination of wanted Palestinian militants in situations where their arrest "would probably have been possible" and where potential harm to unidentified civilians was explicitly condoned.

Israel's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the legality of the continued practice of targeted assassinations in late 2006, rejecting a 2002 legal challenge brought by lawyers representing the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. The court ruled that future "preemption strikes" should only be conducted on the basis of well-grounded and accurate intelligence and only in cases where there was clearly no option for a safe arrest. Civilian casualties are legal "only if it meets the demands of proportionality" the court ruled, in a clear effort to prevent a recurrence of previous strikes on crowded areas. The justices added that a committee must be established to thoroughly study the merits of each strike after the fact. Two years on the committee has yet to be established, with Attorney General Menachem Mazuz strongly admonishing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that further delay, "Is liable to constitute a contempt of court," Haaretz noted.

In the absence of effective legal strictures, the practice of targeted assassinations appears to be ongoing if sporadic. The IDF also seems to have made a discursive shift to speaking of all such cases as "ticking bombs" and "ticking infrastructures" while allegedly continuing the strikes in a manner in violation of the court established norms, the report alleges. It remains unclear how many of the regular deaths in IDF-militant clashes in the West Bank are due to pre-planned operations in which clear instructions were given to troops not to pursue arrest.

According to Israeli human rights group B'tselem 386 Palestinians have been killed in IDF assassination strikes since the start of the second intifada in late 2000, with 107 of those deaths coming in the West Bank, where IDF forces operate with almost complete freedom of action. Haaretz also quotes a further B'tselem finding that 154 non-targeted civilians were killed in assassination strikes during this period. The IDF conducts regular incursions in Area A zones in which the Palestinian Authority has ostensible full security control under the Oslo Accords which have been handed back to PA security forces recently, warning PA officers off the streets in a bid to prevent clashes.

Hamas accuses the Fatah-controlled PA security services of complicity in Israeli arrest raids and of coordinating moves to usurp or root out the movement's alleged social services infrastructure in the West Bank. It should be underlined that the vast majority of the almost nightly arrest raids in the West Bank appear to take place under specific orders restricting rules of engagement, in situations where soldiers' lives are not perceived to be under direct threat. There has been a dramatic diminution of bombings and other violent attacks organized by established militant groups since the height of the second intifada, although the Israeli military continues to claim the interdiction of would-be suicide bombers.

A full-scale security alert appeared to be in force in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, likely prompted by intelligence of an imminent attack, though no further news thereon had emerged at the time of publication. A variety of units from the police, border police, prison service and military have been known to operate in the West Bank. The prison service's select anti-riot squad, Mitsada, has been used, in at least one instance, to quell demonstrations against the separation wall as has the shadowy mista'aravim, Arabic-speaking officers or soldiers who work undercover in Palestinian areas and have been accused by Palestinians of inciting violence. Elite IDF units such as Duvdevan have reportedly been engaged, on occasion, in operations targeting specific militants alongside regular units and border police.

Ceasefire undermined

The ongoing arrest operations and alleged assassination strikes in the West Bank raise significant questions concerning the viability of the current, Gaza truce, already shaken by a recent outbreak of violence in the wake of an IDF operation. The detention and killing of militants in the West Bank raises intense pressure on the two primary groups targeted, Islamic Jihad and Hamas, to respond. These also clearly poison the waters ahead of potential Palestinian unity talks, given the alleged complicity of the Ramallah government in Israeli moves against Islamic militant movements. Islamic Jihad, in particular, appears to have been badly effected by the ongoing Israeli raids which seem to have significantly disrupted the movements militant wing in the northern West Bank – responsible for most of the bombings in Israel in recent years – to such an extent that the city of Jenin has become an unlikely test-case for the revival of the PA security forces.

Already effectively sidelined by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and with little prospect of winning a significant future role in a Palestinian unity administration due to limited popular support, Islamic Jihad would appear to have little to lose through a return to violence in the Gaza Strip. A decision by Islamic Jihad to revoke its recognition of the Gaza tahadiyeh would place enormous pressure on Hamas to follow suit and resume the mass rocket strikes of the pre-truce period.

Deflected pressure

The IDF and Defense Ministry have successfully seen off calls from the Israeli left for the extension of the Gaza truce to the West Bank – as envisaged in the Gaza tahadiyeh agreement - which appears to hold the best promise for promoting genuine moves towards the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. The outgoing Israeli government even failed, in the course of negotiations with the Palestinians, in efforts to press the military to make significant moves to ease security strictures in the West Bank. While paying lip-service to governmental control it is clear that the IDF has no intention of promoting moves to rein in its activities in the West Bank and is determined to maintain its current operational profile in the territory. This seriously undermines efforts to promote the quasi-sovereignty and viability of the Palestinian Authority – which even elements in Fatah are now questioning.

The Israeli political elite lacks a genuine interest in promoting a direct confrontation with the military over the West Bank in the absence of significant negotiation breakthroughs, stable governance structures and a genuine left-wing political challenge in the upcoming Israeli elections. Nevertheless, it is clear from the Haaretz story that the issue of US acceptance of assassination strikes is of major concern to the IDF top brass with one targeted killing operation purportedly delayed due to the imminent arrival of the US Defense Secretary in Israel. This brings into serious question the decision-making processes used to classify militants as imminent threats, crucial to the case for targeted preemptive strikes. The legality or otherwise of targeted killings will remain a sideline issue unless specifically addressed by the incoming Barack Obama administration. The chances for this appear slim to none.

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