Death Squads in Gaza; Licence to Kill

By Saleh Al-Naami

The four men in traditional Arab garb didn’t attract the attention of Ahmed Khalil, 27, when he drew near his farm not far from the town of Beit Hanun in northern Gaza. They looked like the vegetable merchants who usually come to buy produce in the early hours of the day. But as soon as they approached, two of them fired at his head with pistols equipped with silencers. He died immediately.

The four men, disguised as Palestinians, were members of the most recent death squad formed by the Israeli government in Gaza to eliminate Palestinian fighters. The four thought that Khalil was a member of the resistance movement on his way to carry out an operation against an Israeli target, Israeli military sources later said. The Southern Zone Command of the Israeli army said that the death squad was formed on instructions of the Israeli mini-cabinet, which urged the army chiefs of staff to take more aggressive action against the resistance in Gaza, so as to end the firing of local-made rockets at Israeli settlements.

The new death squad is code-named Samson. It is a new edition of the Arabists, or units made up of men in Arab garb with orders to attack resistance men deep inside Palestinian territories. On the outskirts of Gaza, members of such squads often abduct farmers and hand them over to Israel’s internal intelligence service, Shabak, for interrogation. There, the men are routinely coerced to supply information about the resistance. Yediot Aharonot recently admitted that Palestinians were being blackmailed by the Shabak into working as informers.

Such units have been operating for a long time in the West Bank. They are called Duvdevan (Hebrew for cherry) and are responsible for most of the target killings of leaders of the Palestinian resistance. Israeli television has just aired a documentary on the training of such units. Experts in makeup, language training and undercover operations help train Duvdevan members. The latter are often disguised as vegetable merchants and told to drive around in Mercedes pickups, the same type of vehicle favoured by Palestinian merchants. The occupation army now has the Arabists as well as the Samson units working undercover in Palestinian territories.

As part of its clampdown on resistance movements, the Israeli army has reactivated the reconnaissance infantry unit dubbed Egoz (or shell nuts in Hebrew). The unit was created in 1993 to act as a spearhead in operations against Hizbollah in south Lebanon. Once an offshoot of the elite Golani Brigade, the unit was disbanded following Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. Now the unit has been reformed and told to patrol residential areas in various West Bank towns with orders to clash with resistance groups planning to fire at Israeli settlements or military targets. Egoz sets up road blocks on major streets in the West Bank in an attempt to arrest suspects and secure the roads leading to Israeli settlements.

The Israeli army has also formed a unit, dubbed Kharouf, which shoots at any Palestinian acting suspiciously on main roads. Another unit, called Duchifat, combs areas prior to military assaults in the West Bank. The Israeli army still maintains several elite death squads, such as Sayeret Metkal, which is affiliated to the staff command and was led in the 1970s by Ehud Barak, current prime minister. In 1990, Barak said in a Russian-language bulletin handed out to Russian emigrants that he used to feel "immense joy" at the sight of his victims’s heads being blown up. Former premiere Binyamin Netanyahu also served in the same unit, so did former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon.

The Israeli army has turned Palestinian territories into a shooting range for the special units of the navy and the air force corps, a place where they hone their skills of target killing. And yet the West Bank and Gaza are far from their usual turf. Take for example Force 13 of the Israeli navy commandos. This unit is supposed to operate only at sea, but it has participated in dozens of assassinations and abductions in the West Bank and Gaza. One of the best-known operations conducted by Force 13 was the killing of Dr Thabet Thabet, Fatah Tulkarm representative in mid 2002. Force 13 was formed and for a while led by Ami Ayalon, the former navy commander who challenged Barak recently for the leadership of the Labour Party. In his election campaign, Ayhalon boasted of having personally "killed more Arabs" than all the Jews killed by Hamas.

Shamuel Romeh, who was one of the leaders of Shabak, said that the elite units specialised in target killings work closely with the Shabak, which collects data about the targets from Palestinian informers. General Gadi Eisencott, commander of the northern zone and former commander of the Israeli army in the West Bank, said that the use of elite units in target killings carries a "deterrence" message to the Palestinian resistance movement, one that is far more effective than shelling by planes. "When a Palestinian terrorist knows that soldiers of the special units can fire at his head point blank while he is standing in the alley outside his home, this is a message to the rest of terrorists that our long army can reach any of them," he told the newspaper Haaretz.

Although service in the Israeli army is mandatory, service in the death squads is voluntary. According to Israeli television Channel 2, most those who volunteer for service in the elite units are followers of the religious Zionist current, who combine military and religious zeal with racism toward the Palestinians and Arabs.

Israel’s official institutions offer young people incentives to get them into the elite units. Military expert Rami Edelis says that one of the major considerations for promotion in the army is service in these units. When members of such units go back to civilian life, they are given priority in employment as well as scholarships.

(Al Ahram Weekly – – July 26-August 1 2007, Issue No. 855)

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