The assassination of Yihye Ayash, who was known as "the engineer," triggered a wave of savage terror attacks in March 1996, sowing sorrow and bereavement among dozens of Israeli families, and ushering in a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Among other things, the turning point meant that Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu took the reins as prime minister after the June 1996 elections.
The threat of another, similar turning point hovers over the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, which could throw the conflict into a violent tailspin whose end-point cannot be foretold.
Both events justify reconsideration of the assassination policy, from the standpoint of morality, political wisdom and practical policy efficacy.
At first glance, it seems misleading to treat the 1996 assassination of "the engineer," Ayash, as an event that caused an escalation of violence between the two sides. Such an interpretation might even be rejected as deliberate distortion. Instead of an isolated incident, the Ayash killing can be seen as part of a sequence of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli responses, and in this chain of events, some might argue, there was nothing unique in the Ayash killing.
However, in retrospect, it is indisputable that the Ayash assassination was the fuse which ignited the wave of terror attacks; it occurred at a time of sustained quiet, in a period when the sides were engaged in peace process talks.
The same can be said of Ze'evi's assassination. It can be interpreted as one more episode in a continuing series of murderous Palestinian attacks, or it might be viewed as an eye-for-an-eye response to assassination strikes perpetrated by Israelis. In any event, Ze'evi was killed at a time when there was a sharp decrease in violence; and the murder seemed to be designed to disrupt any resumption of diplomatic contacts.
Clearly the Ze'evi killing was planned some time in advance, yet the timing of its execution makes it look like a response to some assassination strikes carried out by Israel against Palestinian terrorists last week. Similarly, the assassinations of Atef Abayat and two of his cohorts shortly after the Ze'evi murder are naturally interpreted as acts of vengeance; these killings accelerate the trend of hunting down particular individuals.
The considerations that led Israel to deploy the assassination policy are substantive. The method was adopted in response to the Palestinian Authority's refusal to arrest terrorists who operate from its territory. It can be seen as an alternative chosen out of reluctance to wage total war against the PA; it enables Israel to focus its war on the main perpetrators of terror attacks; and it limits, as much as possible, punishments inflicted on the Palestinian collective. From a moral standpoint, the assassinations might be justified as self defense. The strikes are aimed at "human time bombs" who plan terror against Israelis.
But experience calls for a re-consideration of this method of warfare, however weighty its justifications. Its moral basis remains controversial generally, and within Sharon's cabinet in particular. Pinpoint warfare against selected individuals turns the state's authorities into investigator, judge and executioner.
The assassinations policy blurs the line between necessary preventive actions and unnecessary exploitation of opportunities that arise in the field. It sullies Israel's diplomatic status, exposing the state to the accusation that it employs terror methods resembling those used by the PA.
Moreover, it creates symmetry in arguments used to justify assassination on both sides of the conflict. Public opinion around the globe regards the late Minister Ze'evi the way Israel had perceived Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Abu Ali Mustafa. Both are perceived as nationalist extremists whose political activities are inextricably intertwined with their complicity in the implementation of policies of violence.
The assassinations have fostered panic in the Palestinian leadership, and intelligence experts claim that they made a significant contribution to the war against terror. On the other hand, Ze'evi's murder casts doubt on the assassination policy, suggesting that it can backfire. Not only has an Israeli government minister been murdered, but the assassination has raised alarm throughout the governmental framework: It necessitates changes in the daily lives of the state's leaders, and its repercussions include IDF actions in the territories over the weekend, and the resulting tragic loss of life.
As to the interim period - before the government reconsiders the assassinations tactic - it would be wise to stifle voices (including those of cabinet members) that call for increased use of this method.
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