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The killing of four armed Palestinian fugitives by a special police anti-terrorist squad in Bethlehem last Wednesday was authorized at the highest levels of the General Staff, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak apparently has no regrets.

A Haaretz investigation revealed that Barak was briefed about the operation in advance. As a result of the operation, Islamic Jihad violated the unofficial lull that befell the Gaza Strip after weeks of fighting, and led the radical group to resume its rocket attacks against Sderot.

However, the political leadership is steadfast in its insistence that it made the right decision, and said its move reflects an intentional policy of decoupling the two fronts, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, the defense minister visited the anti-terror squad's headquarters in central Israel, a visit that had been planned but pushed forward for obvious reasons. In an unusual step, Barak's bureau released photos of the minister with the unit's members.

It seems that Barak was trying to send a very clear message: Israel does not believe that it should be sorry for the action by the anti-terror squad, and reserves the right to arrest - and at times kill - fugitives in the West Bank as part of its continued anti-terror activities there.

Barak had made such statements in public several days earlier, and it is possible to understand this as a kind of response to Hamas' leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh, who said his organization is demanding that any cease-fire deal also apply to the West Bank.

For the Israeli leadership, political and security alike, this is not acceptable.

They argue that without the arrest of fugitives, the Palestinian organizations in the West Bank may copy the March 6 attack on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. They also say that at a time when Hezbollah is planning to avenge last month's killing of their terrorist mastermind, Imad Mughniyah, the current period is sensitive from a security standpoint and requires preemptive actions.

The decision to arrest Mohammed Shahada of Islamic Jihad, the most senior militant killed during the incident in Bethlehem, was made several weeks ago. The operational plan was prepared by the Judea and Samaria division and was authorized by its commander, Brigadier General Noam Tivon. Approval was granted at the level of GOC Central Command, Major General Gadi Shamni, and the chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi.

On the day of the terrorist attack against the yeshiva, army and police raided the Bethlehem home Shahada was staying in, but he was not there. On Wednesday, March 12, another attempt was made to arrest him. Barak was informed that morning of the operation. Just like the officers subordinate to him, Barak did not believe that the lull in the Gaza Strip was a reason to prevent the operation from taking place.

Earlier that morning, another Islamic Jihad fugitive was killed at Kafr Saida, north of Tul Karm, in another operation by the anti-terrorist squad.

Officially, the operation was for an arrest, but the fact that it ended with the killing of four fugitives did not come as a surprise. The police's anti-terror squads have much looser rules of engagement than similar army units. The commander on the ground is given a lot more liberty to make decisions.

When it is known in advance, as it was in this case, that the fugitives are armed, the commanders are not inclined to take any unnecessary chances. Police officers admit that "in practice this became a shoot-to-kill operation."