Israel’s Assassinations: The US Debate

Even as the deadly cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence continue to accelerate, the debate over Israel’s practice of assassinating Palestinians should not be swept aside. Before the terrible bombing in Jerusalem last Thursday, Vice President Cheney set off a firestorm with comments on national U.S. television that appeared to support Israel’s assassination policy. It is worth noting Cheney’s comments in full.

When asked about the Israeli practice, he said “In Israel, what they’ve done, of course, over the years, is occasionally, in an effort to preempt terrorist activities, is to go after the terrorist. And in some cases, I suppose, by their lights, it is justified. If you’ve got an organization that had plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they have hard evidence of who it is and where they’re located, I think there’s some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting.”

The interviewer then asked the Vice President if the Israelis have given any indication “that these are in fact preemptive strikes?” Cheney responded, “I think that’s their claim. I do know, in some cases, they have, in fact, gone to the Palestinian authorities with names and locations and asked that the Palestinians take action against the terrorist in Palestinian territory. And when the Palestinians have failed to do that, then the Israelis have gone forward and launched a strike.”

Since the State Department’s official spokesperson had, just one day earlier, condemned the Israeli policy stating that the U.S. “was against the practice of targeted killings,” two questions were immediately raised:

    • what is official U.S. policy? and

    • is there a dispute between the State Department and the White House over this policy?

The latter question had been the subject of some discussion in the United States media during the past week, with the general consensus being that some political considerations at the White House may be frustrating the formulation of a more proactive Middle East policy by the State Department.

Nevertheless, immediately on the heels of Cheney’s statement, the White House spokesperson attempted to erase any doubt about the consistency of U.S. policy. While suggesting to an unbelieving press corps that Cheney’s comments were not fully understood or were taken out of context, he concluded, “The Administration…at all levels, deplores the violence there, and that includes the targeted attacks.”

This assertion, however, did not put the matter to rest. Questions are still being asked about precisely what is the U.S. attitude toward Israeli assassinations and what, if anything, the United States might do to effect a change in what they have termed “a deplorable practice.”

In an effort to press the Administration toward greater clarity, a week ago my Institute (the Arab American Institute) wrote to the Secretary of State urging the United States to take firm actions that might restrain Israel. Specifically we called on the Secretary to apply provisions of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act (AECA) that prohibit recipients of U.S. weapons from using those supplies in a manner inconsistent with the purpose for which they have been provided. The AECA states that U.S. weapons are provided for “legitimate self-defense” and prohibits their use either against civilians or in any manner that might contribute to “the escalation of conflict.”


Since the State Department has condemned several of these Israeli attacks as, “deplorable” and ‘provocative,” and warned that they risk a accelerating of the conflict, we believed that it would be logical for the Secretary to implement the AECA and withhold those U.S. weapons and supplies which Israel has used in those attacks.


We were not surprised, three months ago, when in response to our earlier request regarding AECA, we received notification from the State Department and the White House that Israel’s use of U.S. weapons was, in fact, under “serious” investigation.


It was, therefore, quite disturbing to hear the State Department spokesperson, late last week, inform the press thaaluee determination had been made that Israel was not in violation of the AECA and that the matter was closed.


Some persistent reporters continued to press the spokesperson to explain the inconsistency between the U.S.’s condemnation of Israel’s assassination policy and the Administration’s failure to implement U.S. law. The spokesperson’s explanation that “one is a legal determination and the other is a political judgement,” did not silence the reporters, who then asked whether by failing to make the legal determination and implement the AECA the United States was not putting itself in the position of suggesting, as Vice President Cheney had, that there may be some “legitimate self-defense” justification to Israel’s policy?


In other words, by failing to implement the AECA, the U.S. position on Israeli assassinations remains quite unclear.


Recognizing that this issue had dangerous implications, the Israelis have enlisted many of their supporters to publicly defend their position. In recent weeks, the right-wing fundamentalist leader Pat Robertson was joined by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer, all of whom defended assassinations. Even former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk used language similar to Vice President Cheney’s in speaking about the Israeli practice.


To put this entire matter in historical perspective, it should be recalled that assassinations are not a new Israeli policy. For decades now Israel has been engaged in targeting and assassinating Palestinian leaders. While it is an old policy, it has gone thorough several iterations and it’s current implementation is different in several respects from past practice.


In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Israel assassinated dozens of Palestinian leaders throughout Europe and in several Arab capitals. They did so utilizing a variety of different methods: commando raids, gangland-style undercover hit teams and letter and car bombings. In most of these cases, Israel would deny direct involvement, even when its agents were caught or compromised.


After the first Intifada, the arena of assassinations shifted to the West Bank and Gaza with Israel using undercover military personnel to commit cold-blooded killings of Palestinians targeted for “elimination.” Once again, during this period, Israel made a real effort to deny any direct involvement in these murders—even though they would sometimes gloat over the resultant deaths of those whom they insisted were “terrorists.”


Today’s assassinations are different. Using “smart” weapons and tanks and helicopter gun ships, the Israelis are quite open about their policy of eliminating Palestinians. Nevertheless, still sensitive to world reaction, the Israelis refuse to call what they are doing “assassination,” preferring instead to use euphemisms like “targeted strikes.” The Israeli press reported that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres issued a “scathing attack on the Israeli media for calling ‘targeted attacks to prevent attacks on civilians’ an ‘assassination policy.’” Peres is quoted saying “what do they think we are a mafia that assassinates?”


That is exactly what most governments and U.S.-based human rights organizations think of this Israeli policy. So far, the only holdout is the U.S. Administration.


But the political battle in Washington is far from over.


The Israelis have been emboldened and have increased the frequency and lethality of their attacks on Palestinian leaders. In one week, over one dozen so-called “targeted” individuals were executed. In each case, the Israelis, acting as judge, jury and executioner, have insisted that all of their victims were not only terrorists, but were terrorists who were in the process of planning an attack. In no case have the Israelis presented any evidence to justify their claim of “self-defense.”


It is precisely because these murders are extrajudicial, illegal and highly inflammatory and because non-targeted bystanders have also been victimized by these attacks—that they should be condemned and stopped.


But because, the United States appears, at least, to be ambivalent as to how to judge them and resistant to applying the U.S. law that might stop them—these Israeli acts of murder will no doubt continue.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.