Analysis |

In U.S., Doubts Over Targeted Assassinations Are Not as Taboo as in Israel

The confirmation hearing for the new CIA director-designate, John Brennan, brought to the fore the policy of assassinating terror activists, and in particular the intensive use made to this end of unmanned aircraft, known as drones.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The public debate Americans have been conducting recently about the implications of the worldwide war they are waging against Islamic terror is not confined to the decade between September 11, 2001, and the assassination of Osama bin Laden, or to the two four-year terms of President George W. Bush. The Americans are also discussing and implementing far-reaching measures in that war during the second term of Barack Obama.

It was the Obama administration that formulated a directive permitting the president to authorize the assassination abroad, without trial, of U.S. citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism. And it was the president himself who (in his first term) broke an election-campaign promise to close the controversial Guantanamo detention facility.

The confirmation hearing for the new CIA director-designate, John Brennan, brought to the fore the policy of assassinating terror activists, and in particular the intensive use made to this end of unmanned aircraft, known as drones. The Oscar-nominated film "Zero Dark Thirty," about the killing of Bin Laden, added new fuel to the fire of controversy over using torture in the interrogation of terrorists under circumstances in which American intelligence deems it essential.

In addition, reports in the British and American media about new methods developed by the American defense industry for the surveillance and analysis of protest activities by monitoring social networks have sparked a discussion about the limits of intervention by the administration, and the threats to civil liberties in the digital era.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the domestic battle against terrorism are not developing into an American trauma of the same intensity as the Vietnam War. There have been far fewer casualties, there is less of a national sense of failure, and in the absence of the universal draft that existed during the Vietnam period, the price of the new wars has hardly been felt in every American home. Still, a lively debate is under way in the United States, one that is to some extent enviable.

Of course, all the questions with which the Americans are dealing are to some degree mirror images of the issues Israel must contend with in its long struggle against Palestinian terrorism, and its maintenance of the occupation. The targeted assassination policy (a model that had a considerable influence on American strategy ) was developed and expanded by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service at the beginning of the last decade. Over the years, Israel has used this method to kill many dozens of terrorists, without allowing them to stand trial. And for years the international press has been filled with reports - though Jerusalem does not comment on this officially - about Israeli use of assault drones to carry out assassinations in the territories and abroad.

Moreover, even though the use of torture was prohibited by the High Court of Justice in 1999, considerable leeway remains for the use of "exceptional measures" in Shin Bet interrogations. Such measures were often resorted to during the second intifada in an attempt to neutralize so-called "ticking bombs."

Israeli intelligence began to concentrate on monitoring the social networks of Islamic organizations and foreign left-wing activists after the surprise blow it was dealt by organizers of the Turkish flotilla in May 2010 (the Marmara episode ). Just this week, complaints were made against the Israeli police for allegedly using similar means to monitor activists of the local social-protest movement.

But when it comes to a public discussion about the more complex aspects of the struggle against terror, Israel is very far from the United States. Questions about the legitimacy of the targeted assassination policy have been raised in petitions to the High Court in the past decade, but quickly disappeared from the public agenda.

Forgetting details

It is not only the far-reaching moral implications inherent in some of the measures taken by Israel in its aggressive struggle against terror that make people loath to address the issue. For most Israelis, the first five or six years of the last decade - the period of the second intifada - remain a prolonged nightmare that is best repressed and consigned to oblivion. That war did not end with an unequivocal victory, which in any case is probably impossible in the battle against terrorists and guerrillas. Nevertheless, it is clear today that the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet were successful in suppressing the Palestinian terror offensive from the West Bank. It is more convenient to forget details when it seems as if the relative success has buried the dangers deep in the cellar.

Clearly, the dizzying sequence of events since then - the death of Yasser Arafat, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the illness of Ariel Sharon, the Second Lebanon War - helped repress the brutal experiences of the intifada. There is something odd about the fact that the murderous onslaught of that uprising, which took the lives of more than 1,100 Israelis, most of them civilians, generated less discussion here than the Second Lebanon War, in which the losses on the Israeli side were less than one-sixth of that number. We have distanced and repressed the second intifada.

Yet, it is that period that in large measure continues to shape the political consciousness of Israelis. It provides validation for the deep sense of suspicion held by most of the public vis-a-vis Palestinian intentions. And it's entrenched in the relatively broad support for Benjamin Netanyahu, with his reputation as a cautious statesman who will not rush to take uncalculated risks in peace negotiations.

On the other side of the separation barrier, there is no doubt that the Palestinians' suffering in the intifada raised the level of anger and hatred against Israel. By the same token, it brought about what Moshe Ya'alon, at the time the IDF chief of staff, referred to as the "burning of consciousness" - the very concrete awareness of the price of defeat entailed in a confrontation. This awareness continues to operate in the territories as a cause of restraint, which in the meantime prevents a slide into another war of terror.

Nevertheless, the past few months have seen incipient buds of a discussion of that traumatic period. The initial catalyst was Dror Moreh's film "The Gatekeepers," nominated for an Oscar in the documentaries category, in which we see six former Shin Bet directors confronting the consequences of 45 years of occupation. What's of interest here, beyond belated remorse, is the wider angle of observation that the heads of the secret service adopt after retirement.

At the height of the intifada, the same Ya'alon accused former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter of viewing the events in the territories too narrowly. The Shin Bet has one exclusive role in the territories: prevention of terrorism. It is not really interested in the political process. When the chiefs leave the service, the picture suddenly looks different, more complex.

Desperate expectations

This week, Channel 10 joined the historical excavators when it broadcast an investigative report by Amnon Levy about the circumstances of the death of Yasser Arafat, and also - far more important - the first half of a film by Raviv Drucker about Ariel Sharon and the second intifada. Taking part here, too, in a kind of echo to "The Gatekeepers," are Dichter and his successor, Yuval Diskin. Drucker inserted recordings from Army Radio shows from the time of the intifada, and in particular shots of the burned-out buses and the wailing sirens, distant echoes from that nightmarish period.

Drucker, Ofer Shelah - a former journalist, now an MK from Yesh Atid - Avi Issacharoff and myself dealt extensively with that period in books we published a few years ago. Still, special value attaches to the on-camera appearance of a veteran behind-the-scenes individual like Uri Shani, who was Sharon's confidant, or to the frank remarks now made by Diskin for quotation and attribution. It's likely that in the second part of the film, which will be broadcast on Monday, Drucker will touch on how the decisions made by Sharon, more than anyone else, shaped the face of that military campaign - Operation Defensive Shield, which led to a turning point, the establishment of the separation barrier and the so-called "disengagement" from Gaza.

The barrier that Sharon ordered to be built, though he was opposed to the idea, continues to shape our consciousness about the territories, and makes it possible for most Israelis to conduct their life as though Nablus and the Balata refugee camp were on the dark side of the moon, rather than half an hour away by car. But as I have written here more than once, the Palestinian story is far from over: The fundamental collision with the Palestinians, whether it takes place via diplomatic and legal channels at the United Nations or in The Hague, or in the form of broad popular demonstrations or even with the renewal of terrorism, will ultimately return to center stage, despite the current focus by Israelis on the problems of the middle class. There are already initial signs of this: The ground in the West Bank, though not yet burning, is definitely beginning to simmer.

Maj. Gen. (res. ) Giora Eiland this week published a sober-eyed article in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he explained why the chances of reaching a permanent settlement with the Palestinians in the years ahead are poor. Eiland rightly notes that no permanent solution has yet been achieved, despite expectations of the various administrations in Washington, because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are sufficiently interested in it. In the view of both sides, the price entailed in reaching an accord would be too high, relative to the perceived benefit that would accrue to them.

Still, in conversations with IDF officers serving in the territories, it is hard not to see the expectation - the almost desperate expectation - that Israel's politicians will renew the activity in the political channel with the aim of diverting the energy stored up there to a direction that will prevent an explosion.

The news from the field arrives in bits and pieces, and it's not encouraging. This week checkpoints were beefed up at the entrances to Jerusalem because of a warning that a terrorist was attempting to infiltrate - a scenario not experienced in the city for nearly two years. Many settlers are having their cars re-armored against stones, following years in which there was no need for such protection. The Palestinian Authority is concerned that Hamas might touch off a new wave of unrest in the West Bank, against both the PA and Israel, in light of the slow pace of reconciliation between Ramallah and Gaza.

A generation ago, the army tested officer candidates to see how adept they were at distinguishing details in a complex picture. The candidate was shown a sequence of some 20 illustrations, the first of which contained a cat. Slowly, from drawing to drawing, the cat's claws lengthen and its tail grows and winds around, until in the last picture a tiger appears. In the territories, too, the question is still how and when the cat will again morph into a tiger.

Protesters from CODEPINK disrupt the start of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Feb. 7, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Credit: AP
The aftermath of the Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem during the second intifada, in August 2001.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

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