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Israel's undercover assassins

By Paul Wood, BBC News, Wednesday 1 August, 2001, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK

Inside a Palestinian courthouse on Wednesday a crowd gathered, cheering and shouting God is Great as three men were sentenced to death for collaboration with Israel.

They had been convicted of helping Israel's security services assassinate a leading Palestinian activist last year.

Such killings are carried out by the Israeli army, or by Shin Bet, Israel's security services, known to Israelis as the Shabak.

The Shabak is thought to have a large network of Palestinian agents on the West Bank.

This allows Israel to identify those it says have carried out, or will carry out, terrorist bombings.

Targeted military actions - what the Palestinians call assassinations - are the result.

Other methods

Sometimes this is tank fire, or rockets fired from helicopter gunships, as happened in Nablus recently when eight Palestinians, including two children, were killed.

There are other methods. In Bethlehem, eyewitnesses said a local Islamic Jihad commander had a narrow escape when four men threw off Arab disguises and opened fire with Uzis. The four were assumed to be from Shin Bet.

In another operation, an Islamic militant on the West Bank died when the headrest in his car blew up. Explosives had been placed inside by someone assumed to be a Palestinian agent of Shin Bet.

Israeli security experts say that Shabak has a large number of fluent Arabic speakers, able to pass themselves off as Palestinians and go freely about the West Bank.

New recruits to these elite units are said to have to pass a test by going to a Palestinian market and talking to shoppers without raising any suspicions.

Detained spies

The Palestinian Authority says Israel has carried out at least 60 assassinations since the intifada, or uprising, began 10 months ago. The PA says it has foiled many more attempts by Israel's secret services to kill senior Palestinian officials.

Khaled al-Qidra, attorney-general for the Palestinian security courts, said a number of spies had been detained. He said Israel provided collaborators with sophisticated equipment to track down Palestinian activists.

An Israeli Defence Ministry spokesman, Yarden Vatikay, said: Israel has no policy of assassination, but will continue to arrest and attack those who pose a threat to Israeli lives.

The Israeli security cabinet met on Wednesday and decided to continue with the policy of pin-point military strikes. The alternative, some Israelis say, would be all-out war with the Palestinians.

Threat to Arafat?

In recent weeks, a rising tide of newspaper leaks has revealed a debate within the Israeli Government and the highest reaches of the army and Shin Bet.

The question is: Should Israel launch a devastating military attack aimed at destroying the Palestinian Authority and ejecting Yasser Arafat?

Early in July, the Israeli newspaper, Maariv, even published excerpts of what it called a top-secret Shin Bet document presented to the Israeli Prime minister, Ariel Sharon.

Some interpreted the document as a call for Yasser Arafat himself to be assassinated.

According to Maariv, the security agency concluded: Arafat the man is a severe threat to the security of [Israel]. The damage from his disappearance is less compared to the damage from his continued survival.

Avoiding war

Others within Israel's security agencies argued that any attempt to dislodge Mr Arafat could backfire, resulting in an even more radical Palestinian leadership, possibly run by Islamic militants.

According to accounts of a key Israeli cabinet meeting last month, Mr Sharon has firmly rejected talk of attacking the PA or removing its leader.

You're all big heroes with all your advice, he's supposed to have told right-wingers clamouring for an all-out military assault.

At the end of the day, the responsibility is mine. This region is not going to war.

For the time being, that means the policy of assassinating Palestinian militants will continue - and that means a pre-eminent role for the Shabak and their agents.