Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Mark Lavie, "Top Israeli Court Upholds Killing Policy," SFGate, December 14, 2006.

The Israeli Supreme Court on Thursday upheld Israel's policy of targeted killings of Palestinian militants, allowing the army to maintain a practice that has drawn widespread international condemnation.

The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel fixed some legal limits, but it did not insist on prior court approval for the attacks, leaving the limits only theoretical and endorsing the killings in practice.

Israel has defended the practice as necessary to prevent terror attacks, including suicide bombings. But the original justification of stopping "ticking bombs" has been expanded over the years to targeting militant leaders, including field commanders and the founder of Hamas.

Palestinians and human rights groups, who have denounced the killings as assassinations and summary executions without trial, criticized the court for giving legal legitimacy to the practice.

During the last six years of conflict, Israel has routinely targeted militants in airstrikes. The Israeli human rights organization B'tselem estimates that 339 Palestinians were killed in the targeted operations since 2000. Of those, 210 were the targets and the rest were bystanders.

Israel has not carried out such an airstrike since a cease-fire went into effect in Gaza at the end of November.

Targeted killings are usually carried out by attack helicopters or unmanned drones firing missiles at cars, acting on intelligence information from agents and informers on the ground. The tactic has since been adopted by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was the last decision before retirement by Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak, who has often set judicial standards for human rights.

Barak and his two colleagues ruled that "it cannot be determined in advance that every targeted killing is prohibited according to customary international law," while also noting that the tactic was not necessarily legal in every case. Every case needs to be evaluated individually to determine its legality, the court said.

Israeli army Col. Pnina Sharvit, head of military's international law department, told The Associated Press that "everything in the decision is compatible with our existing policy."

Two human rights groups, the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment petitioned the court to ban the policy in 2002, but the court repeatedly delayed issuing a decision.

Ismail Radwan, a spokesman for the Islamic militant Hamas group, criticized the decision, saying it "gives judicial cover for terrorist practices by the government."

Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that killed hundreds of civilians in Israel over the past decade.

The Israeli military began carrying out targeted killings of Palestinian militants after the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the subsequent outbreak of violence in 2000, saying the tactic was the most effective way to stop Palestinian bombers targeting Israeli population centers.

In July 2002, the air force dropped a one-ton bomb that killed Salah Shehadeh, a top Hamas operative wanted for masterminding suicide bombings, along with his bodyguard and 13 bystanders, including nine children. The Shehadeh killing led some international human rights groups to call for criminal charges against Israeli officers, including the current chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who was the air force commander at the time.

In 2004, an Israeli airstrike killed the leader of Hamas, the wheelchair-bound cleric Ahmed Yassin. A few weeks later, another airstrike killed his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

In two important decisions released Tuesday and Wednesday, Barak angered Israelis on both ends of the political spectrum: He drew ire from hard-liners by ruling that Israel had to pay reparations for damages caused by some military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, and from doves by ruling that a section of Israel's separation barrier that juts into the West Bank near Jerusalem can be left in place.

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