The End of Israeli Liquidation of Commanders of Terrorist Organizations
Foreword: It should never be forgotten that Israeli policies are regional in character and that overcoming Iran is their chief aim. If there is a Middle Eastern state of which Israel is afraid, it is Iran. The following article illustrates a change for moderation, adopted out of fear of Iran, in the long-standing Israeli policy of liquidation of its enemies. We should also not forget that weapons of mass-destruction now are becoming cheaper and easier to obtain and thus to determine the policies of Middle Eastern states. --Israel Shahak
Yediot Ahronot, Nov. 8, 1996. By Nahum Barnea
The Israeli government did not issue a statement to the nation and the newspapers did not carry the message on their front page. Nevertheless, this week an era in Israel's clandestine wars ended. For more than 20 years, Israel sent its best forces to find the commanders of terror organizations involved in the killing of Israelis. Most of them were liquidated, a few were kidnapped. This policy, which Israel never admitted officially, was meant to avenge, deter and to boost morale at home.1 This week, when the Israeli government forced many people to stay at home or off the roads because a revenge attack by Islamic Jihad was feared, some of the senior cabinet ministers said, "Enough. We do not want any more attacks. Surely not on the lives of those who are close to the heart of Iran."
In the beginning there was the revenge. Israel lost 11 athletes in the "Black September" attack against the Israeli delegation to the Olympic Games in September 1972. Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the Mossad and the Israeli army to kill everybody who was involved in the attack, in order to deter terrorists from attacking Israeli athletes again. Within 10 months, nine Palestinians suspected of involvement in the Munich attack had been liquidated, and this was only the beginning. The liquidations were in the style of James Bond movies, perfect, elegant and full of dramatic hints. The Mossad gained a world-wide reputation. The world saw it in terms of its tough clever heroes. Parallel with those exploits, the myth of "General Staff Patrol,"2 whose members were involved in some of the operations, was growing in Israel and then also abroad.
The list of the liquidations (the "Xes"3) of Golda Meir was being extended and altered all the time.3 When Hezbollah became Israel's bitter enemy in Lebanon, the method was transferred from the Palestinians to the Lebanese front. After Yitzhak Shamir, an ardent advocate of liquidations from the time of LEHI,4 became prime minister, an Israeli helicopter on Feb. 17, 1992 attacked the car in which Sheikh Abbas Mussawi was driving with his family. The forces returned safely to their base.5
The reaction of Iran, Hezbollah's patron, was tough. In March, the Israeli Embassy building in Buenos Aires was blown up. Iranians were assisted, apparently, by Syria and Hezbollah. Twenty-eight Argentines and 4 Israelis were killed in the explosion and 252 persons were wounded.6 On May 21, 1994, our forces raided the home of Hezbollah leader Mustafa Dirani, deep inside Lebanon, and kidnapped him to Israel. The performance was surgical, daring, elegant. In July the Iranians blew up the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. The performance was neither surgical nor elegant. The Iranians do not execute, they massacre. Eighty-nine were killed, 200 wounded.
On Oct. 29, 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, Fathi Shikaki was liquidated. The leader of Islamic Jihad passed through Malta. The performance was perfect. The liquidation squad disappeared without a trace. Shikaki, every Israeli knew, was a big villain. He deserved his death. However the Iranians insisted that his death be revenged. They pressed Islamic Jihad to react with a mass attack in Israel. On March 4, 1996, their man blew himself up in Dizengoff Center. Fourteen killed, 157 wounded. For the Iranians this did not close the account. According to reports that reached Israel, they planned to mark the anniversary of Shikaki's death by exploding a car bomb in the center of Israel at Shalom Tower (a skyscraper in Tel Aviv), or a shopping center, or big hotel. Syrians were to be only marginally involved. The local Jihad had supplied the means. A similar triangle operated in Buenos Aires and at the U.S. base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a few months ago.
Binyamin Netanyahu, after consulting the heads of the security system and some cabinet ministers, decided to sound the alarm bell. President Bill Clinton and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were mobilized. Israeli roads were closed by police roadblocks. Tel Aviv and its neighborhood stopped moving for a day or two. Economic damage as well as moral damage was done. Nevertheless, it was decided to cause a security uproar. Terrorists might be deterred by the security measures. And if there were an attack, nobody would be able to claim there was negligence. Beyond these frantic measures, two conclusions became evident. The first was that the price of the old method of individual liquidations is higher than Israeli Jews are prepared to pay. It was decided that the method is obsolete, and the hawks among the cabinet ministers agreed. Shikaki was probably the last terrorist under Iranian protection who was liquidated by Israel, as the foreign sources claim.7 Yehya Ayyash, "the engineer," was, perhaps, the last liquidated Hamas member. The second conclusion is that Israel must quickly use all its connections and resources to reach a settlement with Iran. This is difficult but not impossible.8
Israel and Iran are separated, first, by a debt of about a billion dollars. When the Shah was ousted from power, Israel owed Iran about $600 million. Meanwhile, the sum has grown. It may be possible to negotiate about this debt through a third party. Iran hates to see its money in the pockets of others. Iranian sensitivity about money is famous. A second issue is the nuclear aspirations of Iran. A third issue is Lebanon. A fourth issue is Ron Arad. A fifth issue is Iranian support of terror. A sixth issue is Iraq. Israelis and Iranians have enough issues to talk about.
An American journalist, Tom Friedman, from The New York Times, not long ago went to Iran. On the positive side he was impressed by the variety of opinions there, and the almost universal desire to reach an understanding with the U.S. On the negative side, he was impressed by the hatred toward Israel. Iranians are sure, he concluded, that tension between Iran and the U.S. is an Israeli plot. Israeli sources believe that in his second term Clinton will try to reach a settlement with Iran. The question is whether Israel is to be included in this package or excluded.9
- The last reason was in my view the most important.
- The best elite unit of the Israeli army.
- This refers to a story which I am not sure is true, but is firmly believed by many Israeli Jews. The story has it that once it is decided that a person is going to be liquidated his photo is hung in a certain room. When he is duly killed an X is pasted over his photo.
- LEHI is better known in English as the Stern Gang. Barnea refers to the well-known (in Israel) allegation that LEHI liquidated many Jews whom it suspected of various misdeeds (not only of spying for the British), and that in at least one case future Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir himself murdered a senior LEHI member.
- The usual Israeli announcement in such cases. Mussawi and some of his family, including his five-year-old son, were murdered in this assault.
- This is the official Israeli version, denied by many Hebrew press and other commentators. I do not believe it. I believe the claim that the explosion was carried out by Argentine Nazis, not connected at all with the Middle East. The same is claimed about the second explosion at the Jewish cultural center.
- This addition is put in to satisfy the military censorship.
- This represents an immense change of Israeli policy.
- This is indeed a big question, but in my view Netanyahu has adopted from the beginning a less hawkish attitude toward Iran than Peres and he is working through various channels to achieve a cease-fire with Iran.