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Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer evaded a Palestinian plot to assassinate him this week, although it is possible that the true targets were the Chief of Staff or other senior Israeli officers involved in military actions in the territories.

Describing the gunshots of a single Palestinian gunman near the military camp that houses the general staff as an attempted assassination of a senior figure in the defense establishment sounds ridiculous, and rightly so. But it is simply a translation for Israeli newspaper readers of corresponding claims that Israel attempted (and did not succeed) to eliminate Mohammed Dahlan in his convoy in Gaza, or Jibril Rajoub in his home in Ramallah, or Marwan Barghouti in his aide's car. The truth is not always as strange as the fiction.

Just over a month ago, the commander of the Benjamin regional brigade (in the Ramallah area) summed up his investigation of the shelling of Rajoub's home back in May. He found that the soldiers on duty went strictly by the book - perhaps too strictly. At every stage of the surveillance and shooting (which was meant to silence the gunfire directed at Israel Defense Forces troops), the proper authorization was requested and received. The house was damaged by a last - and unneeded - tank shell, the last of four shells that were fired by the tank. The commander of the tank, following standard armored corps procedure, fired four shells, instead of ceasing fire after the third shell had scored a direct hit on the source of fire next to Rajoub's house.

The policy of assassinating terrorists and the people who dispatch them is also a source of controversy within the defense establishment. The policy was adopted only in the absence of a better alternative. It is seen as a success if it obviates the need for a large-scale operation in the territories, and if it proves to the decision-makers in the Palestinian community that they might pay a heavy price if the violent conflict continues.

Despite cries of distress by individuals in the Palestinian Authority's security apparatus and by members of the Fatah and Tanzim leadership who are mixed up in the terrorist attacks, Israel's political leadership has not decided to target "national level" leaders like Barghouti. Jamal Mansour and Jamal Damouni were attacked last week in Nablus, not because of their senior Hamas ranking, but because of their direct links to terrorism. In IDF terms, the two men were "regional" leaders.

The army's decision not to strike at the upper echelons is a matter of deliberate calculation. Anyone for whom a replacement will quickly be found - a substitute who might even be more effective than his predecessor, or whose death will only release a larger wave of vengeance and animosity - is not worth killing. Morally speaking, those at the top of the terrorism command chain are not immune to the same dangers posed to those whom they send. Those who send the terrorists may preach that "it is good to die for our country," up to and including suicide - so long as the death is of someone else; but if they do so, then it is only fair to bring them into the circle of those putting their lives on the line.

It is also somewhat surprising that shooting at enemy combatants can be sanctioned only if they do not have a name or a face. If and when the unknown soldier is given a specific identity, he is ruled out as an assassination target.

This is the distorted logic that led the Americans to kill hundreds of Libyans and Iraqis in the hope that among them would be Muammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein - assassination is against the law, but bombing is legitimate. Like all human beings, the Americans are shocked by the deaths of innocent children who happened to be near the assassination target. But the lethal effect that their sanctions against Iraq have on thousands of children there does not cause them to call off those sanctions.

On the eve of the Sinai Campaign, Israel Air Force pilot Yoash Tzidon was dispatched to shoot down the plane of Egyptian chief of staff Abd al-Hakim Ammar, on his way from Damascus to Cairo. The plane was indeed intercepted, but it turned out to have been carrying other members of the Egyptian general staff. Ammar and his entourage were aboard a different plane. Based on pure legalistic logic, only this erroneous result can be justified, since those officers who were killed had not been targeted in "personal" crosshairs. This sort of hair-splitting is unfamiliar to the Egyptians, who tracked down and killed division commander Albert Mandler during the Yom Kippur War, and to the Hezbollah, which killed Brigadier General Erez Gerstein.

The intelligence and operational capability that is brought to bear in assassinations is a hint that the only thing standing between senior Palestinian officials and their deaths is a decision by Israel. The first cracks are appearing in the determination of Palestinians to pursue violent conflict, but they will only begin to have an effect when they extend to Yasser Arafat. So, in spite of his usual show of being picked on by the neighborhood bully - as if, without foreign observers, his life is now in danger - there are still no signs of that happening.