Israeli assassination sparks new violence

Palestinian's death, retaliation by Hamas occur on eve of talks

November 26, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The killing of Mahmoud Abu Hanoud was swift and precise, with at least seven laser-guided missiles fired into his yellow taxi from Israeli Apache helicopters hovering out of sight on a dark, overcast night in the West Bank.

To Israeli officials, the assassination Friday of the elusive militant leader of the radical Islamic group Hamas was an important strike against terror -- as much symbolic as practical -- to prevent more suicide bombings.

Hanoud is one of up to 65 suspected terrorists killed by Israel in the past 14 months, but he stands out as a member of an elite subgroup -- a popular leader whose death decapitates the military wing of the Hamas militia.

The assassination and Hamas' vow of swift and painful revenge renewed the debate about whether such killings curtail terror and disrupt militant organizations or feed a never-ending cycle of death and destruction.

The first round of retaliation occurred Saturday night, when mortars fired on the Jewish settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, a regular occurrence during the Palestinian uprising. But for the first time in more than a year, the shelling was deadly, killing Israeli army Sgt. Barak Madmon, 26. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack.

Israeli ground troops and helicopter gunships launched an attack on Palestinian security offices, firing up to 20 missiles into several buildings, injuring more than 20 people.

Palestinian officials said a 13-year-old youth was shot and killed yesterday afternoon in clashes with Israeli soldiers during a demonstration near Rachel's Tomb, at the northern entrance to Bethlehem.

Two of Israel's leading newspapers warned yesterday that Hanoud's death, while a significant and surprising blow to Hamas, will not stop the violence.

"We once again have to hunker down in an alert for a mass terror attack," said Yediot Ahronot.

It is far from a new argument, but it is often overshadowed by the moral debate over Israel's policy of targeted killings, which leaders from across the political spectrum have employed for nearly three decades despite international criticism.

The United States continues to voice its opposition to the killings, mostly on moral grounds, even as it hunts down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, which President Bush has likened to a cowboy-style roundup where the suspected mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks is wanted "dead or alive."

The killings are said to risk creating martyrs, from which new, angrier groups are formed to avenge the death. Zahava Gal-On, an Israeli parliament member of the opposition Meretz Party, called Hanoud's killing "targeted stupidity" and said yesterday that it will only provoke more attacks.

Avraham Rotem, a security expert at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center and a retired Israeli general, called targeted killings a policy that "comes out of despair" but is nevertheless necessary in the war against terror.

"It is very dangerous, because it may boomerang," he said. "But it also is the most efficient system." He said groups such as Hamas will strike regardless of any need to retaliate, so such threats are usually dismissed by Israeli leaders.

"Whenever they can do it, they do it," Rotem said.

Martin Kramer, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv, said that unlike the United States, which is waging all-out war in its fight against terrorism, Israel is limited in what it can do.

Assassinations, he said, "are not the perfect solution. But in this kind a war, there are no perfect solutions."

Israel targets a variety of suspected terrorists, from the lone suicide bombers purportedly on their way to crowded restaurants or shopping malls to political leaders who allegedly orchestrate attacks from their office suites.

Among the most notable cases:

In 1973, Ehud Barak, who would later become prime minister, led a secret army unit into Beirut, Lebanon, and assassinated three high-ranking members of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In 1988, commandos infiltrated Tunis, Tunisia, and killed one of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's top assistants, Abu Jihad.

In 1996, Hamas' top bomb-maker, Yahya Ayash, nicknamed "the Engineer," was killed when a mobile phone exploded as he held it to his ear. Hamas retaliated with four attacks that killed scores of Israelis.

In July, an Israeli missile strike killed senior Hamas commander Jamal Mansour and five other people inside his West Bank office in Nablus. Two children walking on the street also were killed. A month later, 16 Israelis were killed in a Hamas-sponsored suicide bombing at a Sbarro's restaurant in Jerusalem.

In August, Israeli helicopters fired missiles through an office window in Ramallah, killing the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa. In October, Popular Front members assassinated Israeli Cabinet Minister Rehavam Zeevi.

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