Israel brushes off criticism of its 'liquidation policy'
By Aluf Benn
Ha'aretz Diplomatic Correspondent
Israel's isolation in the international arena is intensifying as a result of the derailment of the peace process and the escalation of violence in the territories. Israel's responses to the Palestinian Intifada, especially the closure of areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and assassinations of suspected terrorists, have provoked an outcry in Western countries. Israel's attempts to justify its responses have fallen on deaf ears in these countries.
The dynamic which has evolved in recent weeks reflects a predicament in which Israel has found itself since the state's establishment. Whereas Palestinian terror is carried out by individuals, Israel's responses are undertaken by a sovereign state which is expected to abide by standard rules of international conduct.
Since the prime ministerial elections, Israel's leadership has toughened its rhetoric. By publicly boasting about the killing of Force 17 operative Masoud Ayad on Tuesday by Israel Air Force helicopters, Prime Minister Ehud Barak discarded the official vow of silence that had been applied in the assassination of perceived terrorists. Additionally, Israeli spokesmen are now aggressively blaming PA Chairman Yasser Arafat for violent acts of terror, and for incendiary anti-Israel propaganda disseminated in the Palestinian media.
The moment pressure applied by left-wing politicians abated, and his "peace cabinet" was disbanded, Barak took the gloves off in his dealings with Arafat, and berated the Palestinian leader during each meeting or telephone conversation with him.
Rejecting terminology such as "an assassinations policy," Israeli officials explain that strikes by the security forces are not undertaken as acts of reprisal against individuals, but rather as actions intended to thwart acts of terror in the future. During consultations held yesterday in Jerusalem about the assassinations controversy, Israeli officials decided to undertake a quiet, diplomatic campaign in the United States and Europe aimed at forestalling possible accusations that Israel is guilty of war crimes.
Tuesday's lethal helicopter strike against Colonel Masoud Ayad prompted another round of international criticism of what, in international legal idiom, are called "extra-judicial killing." Striking this critical chord, a State Department spokesman drew a comparison between "deliberate killings," carried out by the Israel Defense Forces and the use of helicopter gunships on the one hand, and Palestinian terror strikes against Jewish settlers on the other. The fall-out from the Ayad killing adds to criticism which had been raised in past weeks by U.S. officials in conversations with Israeli diplomats. In these talks, the Americans explained that the deliberate killing of civilians is banned under U.S. law.
When Wednesday's terror attack at the Azur junction wasn't followed by a tough, retaliatory Israeli strike, this American pressure eased to some extent. Taking advantage of an opportunity provided by U.S. President George Bush's condolence call, Barak remonstrated against what he regards as an invidious comparison between Palestinian terror and Israeli responses undertaken "out of self defense." A revised position articulated by the U.S. State Department yesterday holds that Israel didn't violate any understanding or agreement with the U.S. when it used combat helicopters in the Ayad incident.
According to one U.S. source, "Our defense people believe that Ayad was, in fact, a terrorist; but the problem is that a killing in such a visible fashion incites the public in the territories, and in the Arab world at large, and leaves us with a diplomatic problem."
Recent Israeli responses combining punitive economic measures and the killing of selected Palestinian individuals has temporarily quelled the mass uprising, the American source suggested. However, he added, a true cessation of the violence can be attained only when diplomatic peace talks are in full swing. "So long as the Palestinians feel that they have no hope," he explained, "they will display strong emotional responses. It's time to undertake the next step, and resume the diplomatic process."
A further critical American statement regarding Israel's "assassinations" policy may be made on February 28, when the State Department releases its annual report on human rights around the globe. Preparing this document, the Americans asked Israel to relay detailed clarifications with respect to the killings. Israel declined these requests.
In addition to the assassinations controversy, a senior Israeli official acknowledged yesterday that various countries are strongly pressuring Israel, calling on it to ease punitive economic measures such as the freezing of tax remittances due to the Palestinian Authority.