Israel orders army to kill suspectsEwen MacAskill in Jerusalem Thursday July 5, 2001 The Guardian
Israel is to step up its policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian militants, defying international opinion, including that of Britain.
The security cabinet voted after four hours of heated debate yesterday to give the army almost complete freedom in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to liquidate anyone it regarded as a potential terrorists.
Some rightwing ministers wanted to go further, calling for an end to the ceasefire and a massive demonstration of firepower against the Palestinian Authority infrastructure. But the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is due to visit Europe today, resisted them.
Some hours after the cabinet meeting an Israeli civilian was shot dead at point-blank range near the village of Shuwaykah in the West Bank.
This will increase rightwing pressure on Mr Sharon to strike hard.
The decision to widen the scope for extra-judicial killing provoked an outcry from Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups.
The Palestinians say that about 24 people have been assassinated so far. The Hebrew newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that a further 26 were on the army hit list.
Assassinations have been carried out by helicopter attack, booby-trapped telephones, and shooting.
The paper did not name the 26 but it said they were from all the main Palestinian groups: the leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah military wing, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
They were described as field operatives expert in explosives, recruiting suicide bombers, and planning attacks.
Until now the army has been theoretically allowed to shoot only suspects on their way to carrying out a bombing or shooting. Now it can kill anyone on its wanted list.
An army spokesman did not deny the policy but rejected the word "assassination", preferring the term "pinpointing terrorists".
The government says that it has a right to defend itself against anyone planning a terrorist attack.
"The policy [of restraint] will continue, but our response to acts carried out by the Palestinians will, perhaps, be slightly stronger," the labour and social affairs minister Shlomo Benizri, a member of the security cabinet, said.
The foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is the only member of the security cabinet believed to have opposed the policy.
Mr Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the number of killings depended on how hard the Palestinian Authority tried to prevent attacks on Israelis. "The less they do, the more we have to do."
Mr Sharon can expect a difficult visit to France today, one of the EU countries most consistently critical of Israeli behaviour.
The assassinations, which breach international law, rose to the top of the political agenda after three Palestinians in a car were killed by missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter on Sunday night.
The British Foreign Office said yesterday: "Our position is quite clear, that they are wrong and illegal, and we condemn them."
The US has criticised Israel twice this week for the killing, as has the EU."The policy is illegal by any standard.
A spokesman for B'Tselem, the Israeli information centre for human rights in the occupied territories, said: "The policy is illegal by any standard. If people are suspected of terrorist activities, they should be brought to trial. We see the slippery slope of the policy.
"Suspects are being killed without any chance of defending themselves in court, and innocent bystanders have been killed as well."
Mohammed Abu Harthieh, head of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq described the killing as "state terrorism".
Bassam Eid, general director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, said: "We have investigated many cases where the Israelis say they were on the way to commit crimes. We have investigated and it is bullshit.
"They say they were armed, and we go to the field and find they were not."