What would happen if the Palestinian cabinet were to meet and afterward press reports spoke of the existence of a list of 26 to 30 senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who were being targeted for liquidation? What would happen if the Palestinian cabinet were then to decide to "extend the strike operations" against IDF officers who are the commanders of units that are engaged in liquidating Palestinians or against the planners of those actions? What would happen is that Israel would stir up a tremendous worldwide fuss. We would brand that cabinet a "regime of terror" - and rightly so.

In the middle of last week, a momentous event occurred in Israel: the kitchen cabinet, followed the next day by the security cabinet, decided to "extend the strikes against Palestinian terror activists." The decision was made public, as was the existence of a list of between 26 and 30 names of people who are targeted for liquidation.

What was done until now by undercover means, usually without an explicit Israeli admission, has now become official policy, quasi-legitimate. What the international community terms execution without trial, a method used by mafias and ruthless regimes - and even they rarely admit to it, and certainly don't flaunt it - has become part of the declared policy of a country that prides itself on adhering to the rule of law.

Admitting to carrying out liquidations and their transformation into official policy are another stage in Israel's moral deterioration. So too with the expansion of the list of targets for liquidation: no longer only "ticking bombs" (terrorists on their way to perpetrate an attack), but also the planners of such attacks - "even if their preparations have not reached an advanced stage" - according to the reports from the kitchen cabinet.

The danger of the slide down the "slippery slope," a term that is used in struggles for the preservation of human rights, always lurks for a regime of law and morality from the moment it begins to depart from that policy. Suffice it to see the evolution of the torture policy: First the state denied its existence for years, then it was forced to admit reluctantly to the use of torture, and finally its use was institutionalized - in the form of decisions by the security cabinet and ministerial committees, and with the backing of a Supreme Court justice, approving the use of certain means but not others - until the High Court of Justice finally put a stop to it, years too late.

The targets of torture also changed: first only "ticking bombs," and finally thousands of Palestinians, almost everyone interrogated by the Shin Bet security service. The state told its interrogators: Torture as much as you feel like; now it is telling its soldiers: Step up the liquidations. The moral, legal and public relations implications, as well as the practical consequences, are extremely grave.

International law, which Israel - despite all its efforts - cannot ignore, certainly not at present, does not forbid the liquidation of individuals who are on their way to perpetrate a terrorist attack. No one disputes that a terrorist who is about to kill innocent civilians should be stopped by all means including his physical elimination. It is the expansion of this circle, however little, that signals the deterioration.

Since Israel launched its policy of liquidation, it has crossed that red line flagrantly: Anwar Himran had just emerged from the university, books in hand, his wife by his side, when 20 bullets struck him; Dr. Tabath Tabath had just left his house on the way to his clinic, as far as anyone knows, when he was cut down; nor, apparently, was Samiah Malaba on his way to perpetrate a terrorist attack when a mobile phone blew up in his face in Kalandia. Were these people innocent civilians? Probably not. Did they deserve to die? Absolutely not.

Now the killing of people like them has become officially declared policy. And the further expansion of the circle is only a matter of time. Will we liquidate yesterday's terrorists? And what about tomorrow's terrorist who is just embarking on that road. And why not their accomplices? And why not the terrorist's brother, whose killing may have a deterrent effect?

Israel, which is trying to decide on the right way to combat terrorism, must abstain from illegal and immoral methods such as these executions. There are some things a state does not do. Period. Some of those who were liquidated could have been arrested and brought to trial. In a situation where their is no true supervision over the identity of those who are liquidated - the Shin Bet does not have a reputation of totally avoiding the blurring of the truth - it is highly unlikely that individuals whom Israel claims were liquidated because they were on their way to perpetrate a terrorist attack, were in fact engaged in that activity. It is very doubtful that this despicable method, which is condemned by the entire world, including the United States, is as effective as its practitioners would have us believe: many liquidations in fact generated the next terrorist attack.

An equally dubious proposition is the contention that liquidations are preferable to harming the civilian population. The fact is that Israel, which late last week demolished the homes of hundreds of shepherds in the southern Mount Hebron region in revenge for the murder of the settler Yair Har-Sinai from Sussya, is both eliminating wanted individuals and harming innocent civilian populations.

The government's need to "do something" against terrorism is leading it to adopt unconscionable methods. Its need to show Israeli public opinion that "something is being done" has led it to make public its shameful decisions and thus to give them validation that undercuts its moral status even further. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz - will one day be held to account for such decisions; and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, too, to whose credit it can be said that he was outraged by the publication of the liquidation decisions last week, will not entirely be able to escape blame.