Bush Seeks Israeli Advice on ‘Targeted Killings’
By ORI NIR
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has been seeking Israel’s counsel on creating a legal justification for the assassination of terrorism suspects, the Forward has learned. Legal experts from the United States and Israel have met in recent months to discuss the issue, and are considering widening the consultation circle to include representatives of America’s closest allies in the war against terrorism.
Israeli sources who are intimately familiar with the talks said that American representatives were anxious to learn details of the legal work that Israeli government jurists have done during the last two years to tackle possible challenges — both domestic and international — to its policy of “targeted killings” of terrorist suspects.
On Monday, Israel’s attorney general’s office submitted a document to Israel’s Supreme Court in defense of the “targeted killing” policy. The document, submitted in response to an appeal by human rights groups, for the first time provides a comprehensive set of legal arguments justifying the assassination of terrorism suspects.
Last year, Israeli media reported that the American military and Central Intelligence Agency sought operationxpertise from Israel’s military on how to carry out such operations.
Unlike Israel, which went public in November 2000 with its assassinations policy, the Bush administration, like previous administrations, officially is opposed to such assassinations and does not acknowledge that it engages in such actions.
The administration repeatedly has condemned Israel’s policy of assassinating suspects in the West Bank and Gaza.
According to credible press reports quoting American officials, however, the Bush administration has resorted to such methods in pursuing terrorism suspects. Last November, a missile reportedly launched from an unmanned drone over Yemen killed six suspected members of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, including Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, whom the United States has linked to the attack on the warship USS Cole off Aden in October 2000. Unnamed American officials confirmed to the press at the time that the CIA carried out the attack.
Last week, in his State of the Union address, President Bush came close to confirming the administration’s involvement in such operations, saying that terrorism suspects who were not caught and brought to trial have been “otherwise dealt with.” All told, the president said, “more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries, and many others have met a different fate.”
It is not clear how many terrorism suspects the United States has killed in such targeted operations. Israel, in the past two years, has assassinated more than 80 suspects, according to Western human rights organizations. Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv lawyer who submitted an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court against the policy on behalf of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, said that according to his data, the number is higher than 100. “That number, of course, does not include the dozens of innocent bystanders who are regarded ‘collateral damage’ by the authorities,” Sfard said.
In the document submitted Monday to Israel’s Supreme Court in response to the appeal by Sfard and human rights groups and obtained by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, the attorney general’s office says that “targeting identified terrorists, who are directly involved in severe terrorism attacks, as carried out by Israel’s security forces, is utterly legal and legitimate.” Since September 2000, according to the document, Israel is conducting “an armed conflict” in the West Bank and Gaza, which merits actions under “warfare laws” and not in accordance with “self-defense laws.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Forward that although he has not read the Israeli government document, he disagrees with its premise. War powers, which merit such actions, are not to be used where law enforcement is possible, Roth said. In the case of Israel, which rules over the West Bank and Gaza, law-enforcement actions are possible, and suspects can be caught and brought to justice, Roth said.
According to official Israeli data, in more than two years of armed conflict with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli forces arrested more than 200 terrorism suspects, which shows that “you can do it if you want to,” Sfard said.
Roth said that in this sense there is a fundamental difference between Israel’s and America’s pursuit of terrorists. “The core of the issue is when it is appropriate to treat somebody as an enemy-combatant rather than as a criminal suspect,” Roth said. “If you’re an enemy combatant, you can be shot. That’s what war is about. So the real question is when it is appropriate to characterize someone as such.”
Based on that yardstick, Roth explained, Human Rights Watch did not object to the killing of al-Harthi in Yemen in November, because of two main reasons: his alleged association with al-Qaeda made him an enemy-combatant, and neither the United States nor the Yemeni government had any effective control in the area where he was found, which did not allow for a reasonable law-enforcement alternative. Indeed, 18 Yemeni soldiers were reportedly killed when they previously tried to arrest al-Harthi.