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Israel relies on a deadly specialty

Dubai allegations put the Jewish state on the hot seat again for its use of assassinations.

February 22, 2010|By Edmund Sanders

Reporting from Jerusalem — When Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman faced questions Monday from European diplomats over Israel's suspected role in the Dubai assassination of a Hamas militant, he responded with familiar indignation: Why is Israel always the first to be blamed, he asked.

Perhaps no other country's use of assassinations has been more scrutinized, condemned and celebrated than that of Israel. The policy is not likely to change, analysts and diplomats say, because such killings, from Israel's point of view, have proved effective in fighting a nonconventional enemy. And despite legal questions and international backlash, Israel has usually emerged unscathed.

Confronting a hostile region, Israel sees targeted killings as an essential tool in decapitating militant groups or putting them on the defensive, experts say.

"They seem to be extremely focused on this kind of tactic," said Aaron David Miller, former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East and now scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

"This is the price of living in the neighborhood," he added. "It's a symptom of the ongoing confrontation and their perceptions about the long war. Both sides perceive that acting, even with the negative consequences to image and public diplomacy, is still effective and it's going to continue."

Israel is certainly not the only nation to engage in targeted killings. Despite presidential orders to restrict political assassinations, the U.S. has killed terrorism suspects in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, usually with airstrikes. European spy agencies have also been accused of assassinations.

In 2001, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed Israel's tourism minister at a Jerusalem hotel. Two months earlier, Israel had assassinated the group's leader.

Israel has been relatively open and public in defending its use of targeted killings. In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled the practice justified in some instances under international law. In addition, countless books and movies have mythologized the Israeli spy agency Mossad's knack for revenge.

But when such activities occur on foreign soil, and evidence emerges implicating Israeli agents, the nation has found itself under fire.

After the exposure of a 1997 attempt to poison Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan, Israel was not only pressured by the Jordanian king to deliver an antidote, it also agreed to release another imprisoned Hamas leader as part of the apology.

But Israel had the last word, one might say. The released man, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike seven years later.

In the Dubai killing, Israel has refused to confirm or deny its role, though Dubai authorities say they've collected evidence implicating the Mossad.

Israel resorts to assassination, analysts say, because its superiority in military might only goes so far in defeating underground cells of militants.

Such limits were apparent in the perceived failure of the 2006 war with Lebanon and the mixed results of the Israeli military's offensive in the Gaza Strip a year ago.

"Targeted killings is a tool that is sometimes necessary," said Yoram Schweitzer, senior fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies. "It's a very delicate instrument, but as long as it is not used that often, it works."

He said the Mossad's reported 1978 assassination of Palestinian militant Wadie Haddad, who was said to have been poisoned by a box of tainted chocolates, led to the collapse of Haddad's terrorist cell.

Critics, however, question the legality of Israel's use of targeted killings and say the violence only leads to retaliation.

Though international attention usually focuses on attacks taking place on foreign soil, Israel's military has killed several hundred suspected militants in Gaza since 2000, according to the Jerusalem-basedhuman rights group B'Tselem. The group says the killings are at best a moral and legal gray area and at worst extrajudicial executions.

"The biggest problem is it's completely nontransparent," said B'Tselem Executive Director Jessica Montell. "They are killing people and saying [the person] was a senior operative. But we don't know, because nobody has access to that information."

Israeli commentator Guy Bechor says the hoopla over Israel's role in the Dubai assassination has actually helped Israel by striking fear in enemies about a "crazy" aggressive nation that should not be messed with.

Senior Hamas figure Mahmoud Mabhouh was killed in his Dubai hotel room in January by assassins whose pre- slaying moves were captured on a security video. Eleven people using fake European passports allegedly entered Dubai to carry out the killing of Mabhouh, who has been accused of smuggling arms from Iran and of involvement in the capture and killing of two Israeli soldiers in the 1980s.

Many here expect that despite the diplomatic protests from Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, whose passports were forged for use by the assailants, international outrage will fade -- though the mesmerizing security camera video of the operation lives on.

"After 9/11, people understand that democracy sometimes has to be not as clean as we would like it to be," said former Mossad agent Gad Shimron.

Behind the scenes, Israel's intelligence agency works closely with Western nations against joint threats, Shimron said. So though foreign governments might lodge public complaints, he said, "when the door closes, they'll wink."

edmund.sanders @latimes.com

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