Israel.s Assassination Policy: Extra-judicial Executions
Written by Yael Stein
translated by Maya Johnston
On November 9, 2000, Israel assassinated 34-year-old Hussein .Abayat in Beit Sahur firing a missile from a helicopter gunship. In the course of this assassination, two 52- year-old women were also killed, .Aziza Muhammad Danun and Rahma Rashid Shahin. This was the first of a number of assassinations of Palestinians perpetrated by Israel in recent months.
Israel claimed responsibility for this assassination, but quickly adopted a policy of silence and in the assassinations that followed has avoided explicitly confirming or denying its involvement. However, the existence of such a policy is clearly evident in statements made by government and military officials in the press and from testimonies taken by B.Tselem.
Regarding the killing of Hussein .Abayat, OC Central Commander, Yitzhak Eitan, said: "We will continue to take action against anyone who tries to harm us." In a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said: "If people are shooting at us and killing us . our only choice is to strike back. A country under terrorist threat must fight back." During a visit to the IDF West Bank Command Barak made similar statements: "The IDF is free to take action against those who seek to harm us." When asked whether the IDF has a "liquidation" policy Brigadier-General Beni Gantz, IDF West Bank Commander said: "You said liquidation, not me. We will initiate action as necessary. We will not stop such action as long as there is a threat."
In the meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on January 9, 2001, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz explicitly admitted that there is an assassination policy. He claimed that this policy is supported by the legal opinion of the Military Advocate General, Brigadier-General Menachem Finkelstein who determined that, "The IDF has the legal right to fight .hostile elements. in the Occupied Territories in exceptional and extraordinary cases , when the purpose is to save lives and in the absence of any other alternative."
Israel did not devise the assassination policy in the wake of the current Intifada, which began in late September 2000. It has employed this policy in the Occupied Territories and abroad for over 30 years. In an interview which appeared in Ma.ariv newspaper, Rami Gershon one of the founders of the undercover unit, described this policy as it was carried out by his unit and in other IDF units:
We liquidate. Yes, we liquidate. If I don.t liquidate Abu Jihad, or if I don.t liquidate whoever I am supposed to liquidate with the Duvdevan unit, then I.d have a bus explode and I.d have 17 kids liquidated . there, I.m using the same figure of speech . in Ramat Gan [.] liquidating wasn.t invented by the Duvdevan unit. It.s the conclusion that was drawn from special operations carried out by the IDF.s elite Special Forces unit which has been doing it in places you can.t even imagine since the day it was established [.] What.s the difference between Mossad agents and the guys at Duvdevan who deal with sewage? The Mossad guys wear suits, smell of after shave, drive BMWs and waste people in Europe.
B.Tselem has already criticized this policy, particularly following the assassinations by undercover agents of Palestinians marked "wanted" by Israeli Intelligence.
Data and testimonies regarding cases of Israeli assassinations of Palestinians since the beginning of the current Intifada will be presented below. In addition, this paper will present international law forbidding this policy as well as problems stemming from its application, which add another dimension to its illegality.
Since Israel does not claim responsibility for the assassinations, it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of people killed in this fashion in recent months and it is possible that not all assassination victims are listed below. From reports in the press and testimonies collected by B.Tselem, it appears that Israel has assassinated at least nine Palestinians so far:
4. Anwar Mahmud Ahmad Khimran, age 28, killed on December 11, 2000, in Nablus by IDF sniper gunfire from a distance of 300 meters when standing at the university gate in Nablus.
5. Yusef Ahmad Mahmud Abu Sawi, age 28, killed on December 12, 2000, in al-Khader/Bethlehem District by IDF sniper gunfire when standing outside his house.
6. .Abas Ahmad al-.Awiwi, age 27, killed on December 13, 2000, in central Hebron by IDF sniper gunfire.
7. Hani Hussein Abu Bakra, age 31, killed on December 14, 2000, at Gush Katif junction after soldiers stopped the car he was in, asked him to step out and then shot him.
8. Sa.ad Ibrahim Taha al-Kharuf, age 32, killed on December 14, 2000, in Burin village/Nablus District, shot after having gone out to help an acquaintance whose car had broken down.
9. Thabat Ahmad Thabat, age 48, killed on December 31, 2000, in Tulkarm by sniper gunfire aimed at his car when he was leaving his house.
In the course of the above nine assassinations, six other Palestinians were killed:
Below are some eyewitness testimonies which clearly show that the killings were deliberate assassinations:
The assassination of 34-year-old Hussein .Abayat and the killing of .Aziza Muhammad Danun and Rahma Rashid Shahin, both 52 years old, on November 9, 2000, in Beit Sahur/Bethlehem District.
Testimony of Karim Muhed .Ali Shueibat, age 34, married, father of four, resident of Beit Sahur
Last night, November 8, 2000, our house was hit by five shells fired from the Israeli military camp. We were not home at the time. After the shelling ended, we went to see what had happened and discovered that the house was severely damaged. On the following morning we went to the house again. There were ten of us including my mother, relatives and neighbors. During the day hundreds of people came to the house to see the damage. At 11:30 a.m. two civilian cars arrived at the place. There were two people in each car. All four people were in civilian clothes. A few minutes earlier four helicopters flew over Beit Sahur. The four people went inside the house and had coffee. As soon as they went back to their cars, the helicopters stopped in midair.
At the same time my aunts .Aziza Danun and Rahma Shahin, my uncle Salah a-Din Shueibat and his wife Jamila were standing at the entrance of our house waiting for my sister to pick them up. At that time an ambulance of the Civil Defense arrived at the place and in it were Dr. Nidal Salameh, the driver, .Adnan Taha, and the nurse, Samir Muhad. They came to have their ambulance repaired in my brother Ramzi.s garage. The doctor got out of the ambulance and looked at the house. The ambulance stopped 20 meters away from the women and the two cars. I was standing close to Nidal and to my brother.
Suddenly, I heard a loud explosion. I quickly pushed my brother and Nidal to the ground. I lay down as well. While I was lying down, I saw a car fly about six meters in the air (later I learned that it was Hussein al-.Abayat, a Fatah military leader whom I didn.t know). A few seconds later another explosion was heard and I saw two people fly in the air. I crawled backwards and ran to my house where my four children and my old, ill mother remained. I found them in shock. I took them and we ran away from the area through the back door. Not far from the house I saw someone whose face was covered in blood. He was yelling: "Hussein has been killed."
After I had gone some distance from the place, I left the children and went back to see what had happened. I saw four people lying on the ground. They were seriously hurt. Among them were two women whose clothes were in tatters. In one of the cars, I saw the corpse of the casualty, Hussein. His head was cracked open. The young men were trying to get him out of the car and to put out the fire in the front of the car. Hundreds of people gathered around and tried to help. At the same time, the soldiers in the army camp started shooting at the people, but despite this the young men managed to get Hussein out of the car and evacuate the wounded into the three ambulances that had arrived. My car, my brother.s car and the ambulance that had arrived for repairs were hit by shrapnel from the explosions. I later found out that Nidal, the ambulance driver and the nurse were also hit.
The assassination of 28-year-old Anwar Muhammad Ahmad Khimran on November 12, 2000, in Nablus.
Testimony of A.D., resident of Nablus
I work as a taxi driver on the A-Dahiya to downtown Nablus line. The al-Quds college building is in the a-Dahiya neighborhood. I approached the university with some passengers at about 1:45 p.m. A student signaled with his hand that he wanted go to central Nablus. I didn.t know him because many students ride with me every day. I cannot recognize every one.
I signaled him to come over because I was going to park the car and let the passengers out. I parked the taxi no more than 15 meters away from him. The young man walked towards me, and close to the taxi, no more than 5 meters away, he was shot from high above from the direction of the Israeli military lookout situated on Mt. Grizim, 300 meters away. He was hit in the leg and fell on the ground. The shooting continued while he lay on the ground. From what I saw, he was hit by many bullets.
There was panic. People started running in every direction and hiding. I ran into a tailor.s shop and we called the Palestinian Red Crescent from there. The ambulance arrived nearby within a few minutes, but the crew couldn.t get in to evacuate the wounded man lying on the ground because they were afraid they would get shot. Twenty minutes later there was a pause in the shooting. We walked towards the young man. He had been struck by many bullets and I knew he was no longer alive. His books were scattered all over the place. The ambulance arrived and the crew transferred him to the hospital.
The young man was unarmed and there was nothing going on in the area, no demonstrations, no shooting at anyone. He just had some books and notebooks in his right hand.
The assassination of 27-year-old .Abas .Othman Ahmad al-.Awiwi on December 13, 2000, in Hebron.
Testimony of the deceased.s brother, 29-year-old Hamza .Othman Ahmad al-.Awiwi, married with one child, resident of Al Jaladah neighborhood in Hebron.
My late brother .Abas was a student of Islamic Religion in al Quds Open University. He was released from detention in a Palestinian Authority jail a month ago. [.]
After his release, .Abas started working in a shoe factory belonging to the family. In the evenings, he gave lessons in religion in the mosques and studied Islamic Religion
at al-Quds Open University. After his release my brother was very careful. He feared Israeli action against him, so he prayed in different mosques rather than in the same one. Sometimes when he left the house, we didn.t know where he went. He was always afraid that Israel would take action against him.
On the day of the incident, December 13, 2000, .Abas, another brother who works with us and I left the house for the factory at 9:00 a.m. .Abas read the newspaper for a few moments. We chatted a little and at 9:15 a.m. he left for the a-Zajal factory to order some knives for a new shoe model. .Abas came back to our factory at noon. He sat for a few minutes and talked on the phone. I don.t know with whom. After that .Abas decided to go back to the a-Zajal factory, because we had made another shoe model and he had to give it to them so that they would make knives for it. He walked towards the road. Two minutes later, I heard loud, brief shooting. I rushed outside and found my brother lying on the road in a pool of blood. I fainted and lost consciousness. Later, I was told that my brother died instantly having been hit by three bullets . two in the abdomen and one in the chest. He was shot while waiting for a taxi to take him to al-Hawaz neighborhood. He was taken to al-Ahali hospital where he was pronounced dead. One of the doctors told the family that .Abas had been shot at short range, from a distance of 8-12 meters. .Abas was buried that same day without an autopsy.
The assassination of 48-year-old Dr. Thabat Ahmad Thabat on December 31 2000, in Tulkarm.
Testimony of 47-year-old Majed Mahmud .Ali Abu Zeineh, married, father of seven, resident of Tulkarm.
Three days ago on Sunday, December 31, 2000, I was standing and talking with one of my neighbors, Kamel Fakhouri, about 45 years old, who owns a locksmiths. workshop near our house. His son, Kamel, and another neighbor, Muhammad Abu al-Fawares, were standing with us. We were talking, and at around 9:30 we heard sounds of explosions coming from the direction of a municipal electricity network transformer which is located near the house. I thought the explosions were the result of a malfunction in the electrical system. Until then, the area had been completely quiet. I looked toward the place where the sound had come from and saw Dr. Thabat.s car going backwards. The car is a greenish colored Peugeot. I saw its windows being shattered. The gunfire came from the west. I didn.t look toward where it was coming from because I was afraid I would get hurt. The shooting lasted more than a minute . two minutes, maybe three . I wasn.t counting. Dr. Thabat.s car kept going backwards and went by about 10 meters from us. The shooting continued uninterrupted while the car was going backwards. The car went out of control and went into a phone pole and stopped.
I walked to the car along with the people with whom I.d been talking. We found Dr. Thabat stretched over the two front seats and took him out of the car. Fate had it that the car stopped near the house of a physician named Dr. Yasser. The physician joined us and started giving the wounded man first aid while the man.s blood was streaming out. Five minutes later, a Palestinian ambulance arrived from the city and took the wounded man to the hospital in Tulkarm.
A. The Fundamental Prohibition: Violating The Right to Life
The right to life is one of the most basic human rights, which is not to be violated even in a state of emergency.
Israeli law guarantees this right in its Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. According to article 2 of the law: "There shall be no violation of the life, body or dignity of any person as such." Article 4 states that "All persons are entitled to protection of their life, body and dignity." The Supreme Court has acknowledged this right as supreme over other rights. Thus, for example, Justice Cheshin ruled that "The right to life and all that sustains it . the right to breathe, the right to drink, the right to eat . is the mother of all rights. It is the essence of humankind." Justice Strasberg-Cohen ruled that "There are basic rights, such as the right to life and dignity, which are not to be violated or denied even those who are not citizens or residents of the country."
The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty does permit violation of the rights it guarantees, but only "by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required, or by regulation enacted by virtue of express authorization in such law." Israel.s assassination policy does not comply with even one of the conditions included in the above article and is therefore illegal.
The right to life is also guaranteed in several international documents. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." Article 6(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that "Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life." According to article 4 of the Covenant the right secured in article 6 is also applicable during states of emergency.
In the general comment to the Covenant, the UN Human Rights Committee stated as follows:
The protection against arbitrary deprivation of life which is explicitly required by the third sentence of article 6 (1) is of paramount importance. The Committee considers that State parties should take measures not only to prevent and punish deprivation of life by criminal acts, but also to prevent arbitrary killing by their own security forces. The deprivation of life by the authorities of the State is a matter of the utmost gravity. Therefore, the law must strictly control and limit the circumstances in which a person may be deprived of his life by such authorities.
In the case of Israel.s assassination policy, the State deprives a human being of his or her life without legal sanction, the legal opinion that allegedly permits such a policy is not made public, the decision to take such action is made in the back rooms of the security services and the assassination is carried out with no judicial process. Such a policy constitutes an arbitrary violation of the right to life and a severe violation of international law.
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.
B. The Implementation of the Policy
The method Israel uses to carry out the assassinations raises a few concerns which, in addition to the legal prohibition, are in themselves sufficient to render the policy illegal.
1. Concern Regarding Errors
The application of the assassination policy carries with it a great risk of injuring persons other than the target. Errors may occur both when selecting the target and while carrying out the assassination.
The decision to assassinate a person is made in back rooms with no judicial process to examine the intelligence information on which it is based. The target of the assassination is not given a chance to present evidence in his defense or to refute the allegations against him. In such circumstances, there is a genuine danger that the information underlying the decision is unreliable or mistaken, with regard to the position held by the person and his actions, and regarding the danger posed.
Under the current circumstances, the likelihood of error is even greater, due to the uncertainty about the nature of the involvement of various Palestinian individuals and organizations in actions against Israel. According to press reports, there is disagreement between the General Security Service (GSS) and Army Intelligence even as to the degree of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.s personal responsibility for recent events.
In addition, errors can occur in the course of carrying out the assassination. First, there is a great risk of harming bystanders. This risk is not hypothetical. Since November 9 2000, Israel has killed 15 people while carrying out assassinations, six of whom were not targets. Israel has killed other people during assassinations in the past. For example, on February 16, 1992, Israel assassinated Hizballah Secretary General .Abas Musawi. His wife, his five-year-old son and five body guards also died. Eighteen Hizballah members were wounded.
Second, those who carry out the assassination may err in the identification of the victim. Undercover units have killed the wrong person more than once. In at least one case, the IDF admitted it. These cases also occurred in the more distant past. On July 21, 1973, two Mossad agents killed Ahmad Bushiki, a waiter in a restaurant in Lillehammer, Norway. The Mossad agents intended to kill .Ali Hassan Salameh, a leader of the Black September organization. According to intelligence information, he was one of the organizers of the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972. It was only after the fact that the Mossad agents realized they had misidentified the target and killed someone else.
Capital Punishment in The United States: Errors in the Judicial Process
In the United States the death penalty is only imposed after a lengthy judicial process, during which the accused is given the opportunity to defend himself in court. Despite this, the percentage of errors in capital cases is extremely high. Professor James Leibman of Columbia University Law School found that in 68% of trials resulting in the death penalty between 1973 and 1995, the courts of appeal discovered grave errors constituting grounds for withdrawing the death penalty or retrying the case. In 82% of cases that were retried, the death penalty was commuted. In 7% of the retried cases, the defendant was acquitted. According to a report in The Economist:
"Since 1973, 87 prisoners have been released from death row after new evidence suggested they were innocent. That amounts to one release for every seven executions. And late acquittals are increasing. Between 1973 and 1993, an average of 2.5 death-row inmates a year were found to be innocent. In the six years after that, the rate nearly doubled to 4.6. In just the first three months of 2000, three inmates were exonerated and released."
This state of affairs persuaded the governor of Illinois George Ryan, on January 31, 2000 to halt executions until an in-depth inquiry into the judicial system was conducted, and until it could be guaranteed that innocent people would not be executed.
According to a number of reports by The Death Penalty Information Center in the United States, there is no guarantee that mistakes will not be made during the course of the judicial process. Where mistakes have been uncovered it was chiefly thanks to a vigorous lawyer, a sympathetic judge or strong evidence that casts doubt on the defendant.s guilt. Yet, these advantages are available only to some of the accused and many others are sentenced to death despite the fact that under different circumstances they would have been acquitted or given a lighter sentence. According to the Center.s conclusions: "The increased rate of discovery of innocent people on death row is a clear sign that, even with the best of intentions, the criminal justice system makes critical errors--errors which cannot be remedied once an execution occurs."
If so many errors occur in an experienced system designed to thoroughly scrutinize all information in every case, it is clearly impossible to ensure that the decisions made by the security authorities without scrutiny would be error-free.
Most of the errors occurring in the United States are the result of poor legal representation and an improperly functioning judicial process. The Palestinians who have been singled out for assassinations do not even benefit from such a process.
2. The Danger of the Slippery Slope
Once the assassination of individuals suspected of carrying out dangerous acts is accepted as a legitimate way of dealing with attacks against Israeli citizens or soldiers, the only remaining question is who to assassinate. However, it is almost impossible to form guidelines that clearly distinguish between those considered legitimate targets and those who do not pose a sufficient threat to warrant targeting. As it is, there is always the fear that in carrying out the policy a wider circle of people will be killed.
Officials who have spoken about this policy have deliberately avoided a clear definition of who they consider legitimate targets. Prime Minister Ehud Barak said: "We will strike against anyone who hurts us. We have the ability to do so." According to a report in Ha.aretz newspaper, "The rule is that we take action as a preventive measure; i.e., against those who continue to carry out attacks." According to another report quoting a senior official in the security forces: "We strike against terrorists who set out to shoot at settlements, single out heads of terrorist cells and regional leaders and strike at them."
These vague definitions allow Israel to strike at a wide variety of people who hold varying degrees of responsibility. In recent months the definition of victims considered legitimate targets was expanded at least once. According to reports in the press, the assassination of Thabat Thabat on December 31, 2000, was carried out following an explicit order by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to expand the circle of people whom it is legitimate to assassinate "so that it will also include high ranking individuals and officials in the Palestinian Authority [.] people belonging to the official branches of the Palestinian Authority who are involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks and whom Israel has thus far avoided hurting will become legitimate targets.
And indeed, if killing those who "set out to shoot at settlements" is justified, is it not, following the same logic, justified to kill the person who came up with the idea to shoot? And what of those who raise funds for the organization responsible for the shooting? By the same token it would be legitimate to take action against political activists who do not directly attack Israelis but support and encourage those who do, or against Palestinians who throw stones at settlements every day and harm their inhabitants.
This may seem like an exaggeration, but history shows otherwise. The Landau Commission allowed the use of physical force during GSS interrogations and sought to limit its use. Yet, torturing Palestinian detainees quickly became routine and was used against hundreds of people every year. Torture was not strictly limited to "ticking bomb" situations or even to people suspected of harming Israelis. The GSS routinely tortured political activists, students suspected of Islamic tendencies, brothers and other relatives of those who were marked "wanted," people whose professions theoretically made them capable of manufacturing bombs, Palestinians whom the GSS wanted to enlist as collaborators . the list is nearly endless. The torture ceased only after the Supreme Court ordered the GSS to stop using these interrogation methods.
Given the broad category of cases in which assassination is legitimate, the fact that Israel avoids assuming responsibility, the lack of scrutiny, and the security forces. history, it is clear that the rapid descent down the slippery slope is not hypothetical but simply a matter of time. This is all the more worrying since this policy has fatal and irreversible results.
3. The Lack of External Scrutiny
The dangers of this policy outlined above, i.e. the concerns regarding errors and the danger of the slippery slope, are all the more grave due to the utter lack of external scrutiny of the security forces, be it public or judicial.
The torture of Israel.s General Security Service illustrates the grave results of the lack of external scrutiny of this agency. The Landau Commission which, in 1987, permitted the GSS to use physical force during interrogations of Palestinians ruled that it was necessary to establish monitoring bodies that would oversee the GSS. conduct and ensure that interrogators did not deviate from the license they were given. After the committee.s recommendations were adopted, several parliamentary and legal monitoring and supervisory agencies were established. However, they almost completely abstained from challenging the work of the GSS; this despite the hundreds of affidavits, petitions, testimonies, and press reports which repeatedly indicated that the GSS tortured the vast majority of the Palestinians it interrogated and that it exceeded the license it had been given. In some cases, the bodies facilitated the phenomenon by giving in to GSS pressure and expanding the license given by the commission. Abuses were almost never addressed and GSS interrogators who violated the license were rarely prosecuted. GSS interrogators also lied to the monitoring bodies and claimed to use interrogation methods other than the ones they actually used.
The assassination policy is a secret policy which is not officially acknowledged, even after the fact. There is no agency that monitors the decision-making process and its implementation, and examines its consequences. Even the public cannot do so since Israel avoids admitting the policy and conceals information. In light of all this, there is a genuine concern that Israel will misuse its power and hide behind a veil of secrecy in order to continue taking illegal action.
Security officials justify Israel.s assassination policy by claiming that it has proved useful. For instance, according to a report in Ha.aretz newspaper, a high ranking official in the security forces told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee: "The liquidation of wanted persons is proving itself useful [.] this activity paralyzes and frightens entire villages and as a result there are areas where people are afraid to carry out hostile activities." According to a report in Yediot Aharonot newspaper, security officials claim that the "liquidation" policy is "the best way to fight terrorism today [.] According to these officials, the effects of this week.s liquidations are already evident: The number of terrorist attacks against Israel is declining."
The claim that this is an effective policy is debatable. Those who profess the effectiveness of the method have not provided one shred of evidence in support of their claim that the policy has contributed to security in any way. Having said that, B.Tselem does not intend to debate whether the policy is effective or not, since whatever the conclusion, there can be no justification of Israel.s assassination policy. Human rights violations cannot be regarded as just simply due to the fact that they provide the results desired by the policy makers. The illegality lies in the policy itself regardless of its end results.
Furthermore, the claim that there is no alternative to assassination under the current circumstances cannot excuse the continuation of the policy. The absence of alternatives does not negate the strict prohibition and Israel must find legal ways to achieve its goals.
B.Tselem does not have the means to examine the people that Israel assassinated and their actions, since Israel does not publish information of this sort and does not bother providing any explanation of its decision to assassinate a certain individual. Yet, whether these are innocent people or people who have actually harmed Israelis, the policy is illegal. The accusations against the Palestinians, grave as they may be, cannot justify a departure from the principles of Israeli and international law.
Assassinations have been part of Israel.s security policy for many years. Israel is the only democratic country which regards such measures as a legitimate course of action. This policy is patently illegal, according to both Israeli and international law, a policy whose implementation involves a high risk of hurting bystanders and from which there is no turning back even if errors are uncovered after the fact. Israel must cease assassinating Palestinians immediately.