Human Rights Watch is deeply disturbed by Israel's openly declared policy of "liquidation" of individuals it suspects of planning or participating in attacks on the Israel Defense Force (IDF) or Israeli civilians. Israeli officials have argued that during periods of armed conflict such individuals are legitimate military targets.
Responding to questions about Israel's first acknowledged "liquidation" under this policy, the head of the IDF's International Law Branch, Col. Daniel Reisner, said on November 15, 2000, "In the current situation, people who attack us have been identified by us as combatants. As a result we view them as legitimate targets. That's what I mean by targeting. That specific individual falls under that category, therefore he was attacked and killed." Shortly thereafter, Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh announced that "the security cabinet gave the green light Thursday [November 23] to a series of operations to prevent attacks and punish those who ordered them." The unanimous decision reportedly gives you, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, the authority to order military operations without security cabinet approval. Although your government has not made public the terms of this authority, the January 8, 2000 Washington Post reported that Deputy Minister Sneh explicitly acknowledged a policy of "liquidations," saying "I can tell you unequivocally what the policy is. If anyone has committed or is planning to carry out terrorist attacks, he has to be hit. . . . It is effective, precise and just." Although Israel has not made public the names of those killed pursuant to this policy, at least nine such killings have taken place since early November, according to Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations, and some press accounts refer to the existence of a list of one hundred potential targets for "liquidation."
Israel's failure to make public detailed information on its policy of "liquidation" of specific individuals is particularly troubling given that at least one of the persons Israel acknowledges killing under the policy, Thabit Ahmad Thabit, was a senior official in the
Palestinian Ministry of Health and secretary-general of Fateh's Tulkarem branch, both clearly civilian posts. IDF snipers killed Thabit while he was leaving his house in Tulkarem on December 31, 2000. According to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, a Palestinian eyewitness described two to three minutes of continuous shooting at Thabit's car as he backed out of his driveway. Thabit had worked closely with Israeli peace activists for more than a decade, and had been credited with arranging the safe return of some twenty Israeli soldiers who apparently blundered into Palestinian-controlled Tulkarem on October 20, 2000. Israeli officials have alleged that Thabit was involved in planning attacks on Israelis, but have not made public any evidence to substantiate this allegation.
The need for investigations is also highlighted by a number of cases where Israeli officials have denied that the victims were killed under the "liquidation" policy, but where the circumstances of the killings are highly suspicious. One such case is that of Anwar Ahmad Hamran, an Islamic Jihad activist who had served time in Israeli prisons and had recently been released from Palestinian Authority custody; he was killed in Nablus on December 11, 2000. According to B'Tselem, a taxi driver who was five meters away from Hamran when he was killed described the shots as coming from the direction of the Mt. Grizim IDF outpost, some 300 meters away. The shooting, he said, continued for approximately twenty minutes, and prevented a Palestinian Red Crescent ambulance from reaching Hamran. The driver said there was no demonstration or shooting in the area prior to the attack, and Hamran, a student at al-Quds University, had books and notebooks in his hands when he was shot. According to press accounts, IDF officials speaking on the day of the killing denied that Hamran's killing was part of "a planned operation," and alleged that soldiers were responding to Palestinian gunfire from an area outside of Nablus: "It wasn't any kind of special action. The soldiers simply saw him armed moving in an area where he shouldn't have been, obviously planning to carry out an attack." Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh reportedly said, "if a man from the Islamic Jihad, an organization which is sowing wholesale death in our cities, has left our world, it is not a reason to party, but definitely a reason to rejoice."
In other suspicious killings, Israel has alleged that its security forces killed Palestinians while attempting to arrest them, despite evidence suggesting that the killings may have been summary executions or the result of excessive use of lethal force. For example, Israeli soldiers killed Hamas activist Hani Husayn Hassan Abu Bakr in highly contentious circumstances. Abu Bakr, who worked as the driver of a shared taxi, was killed at a temporary checkpoint near the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza on December 14, 2000, when IDF soldiers opened fire on the taxi he was driving. According to the IDF spokesperson, an IDF unit "on an operational activity" attempted to arrest Abu Bakr at the checkpoint and then opened fire after Abu Bakr "tried to fire the revolver that was in his possession." According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, however, Palestinian eyewitnesses deny that Abu Bakr had a gun. The witnesses said that a group of soldiers had surrounded the parked taxi and asked for Abu Bakr's identity card. When Abu Bakr reached for his identity card, they said, soldiers in an adjacent tank opened fire on the taxi, and the soldiers who had surrounded the taxi then joined in the firing.
We note that Israel has previously adopted policies that disregarded essential safeguards against summary execution. In 1993 Human Rights Watch documented a pattern of killings of "wanted" Palestinians by Israeli special-forces units, and a failure by IDF and Ministry of Justice officials to investigate and prosecute such killings (A License to Kill: Israeli Undercover Operations against "Wanted" and Masked Palestinians). In thirteen of the twenty cases we documented, Israeli undercover agents killed individuals who were neither armed nor "wanted"; in four of these cases, the victims were killed after unwittingly falling into an ambush for "wanted" persons.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that the present policy of "liquidations," like the previous policy of killing "wanted" suspects, is in essence a policy of killing without public accountability. Further, we are concerned that it creates a climate in which IDF personnel may resort to lethal force in other cases where non-lethal means of apprehending suspects are available. For these reasons we urge you to halt the policy immediately, and to conduct a full review of the measures taken to ensure that no civilians are deliberately targeted. In addition, we urge the government of Israel to:
* Acknowledge responsibility for and make public all cases of individuals killed or wounded to date as a result of the "liquidation" policy.
Make public the factual basis and supporting evidence for the decision to eliminate these individuals.
* Reveal the level of command authorized to order a "liquidation," the process for reviewing such orders, and the person or body ultimately accountable for these actions.
* Establish a commission of inquiry to investigate all killings carried out under the policy to establish whether the persons killed were in fact legitimate military targets, whether it would have been possible to prevent their participation in combat by non-lethal means, and whether steps were taken to minimize injury to civilians and civilian property. The full findings of the commission should be made public. Anyone responsible for wrongdoing should be brought to justice or disciplined, and the victims compensated.
We look forward to your earliest response.
Middle East and North Africa Division
cc: Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin
Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh
Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein
Military Advocate General Brigadier General Menachem Finkelstein
Head of the International Law Branch of the IDF Legal Division Colonel Daniel Reisner
Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee MK Dan Meridor