By Stuart Littewood
Some readers will remember the 1969 film The Assassination Bureau, a tongue-in-cheek romp based on Jack London’s unfinished novel. The setting is the turn of the century a hundred years ago, a fanciful time for regime change and the purging of corrupt monarchs and cruel tyrants. The Bureau’s hit team is for hire provided that Ivan Dragomiloff, founder and mastermind, deems the targeted killing "socially justifiable" and there’s proof of the candidate’s misdeeds.
Eventually, however, the moral rectitude of the enterprise gives way to financial greed, and the day comes when the Bureau accepts a mission to eradicate an unnamed but prominent public figure. The fee is paid in advance, proof supplied, job accepted… then the name is revealed. The target is Dragomiloff himself. The Assassination Bureau cannot go back on its word and Dragomiloff finds himself pitted against the killing machine he himself created and perfected…
Assassination is the targeted killing of persons usually for political or ideological (and often insane) motives. This is OK, but not OK.
In 1976, US President Ford issued an Executive Order which was enacted after revelations that the CIA had made several attempts on the life of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Henceforward targeted political killings were outlawed: "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination." Every US president since then has upheld Ford’s prohibition on assassinations… or somehow got round it.
Carter and Reagan reaffirmed the ban, although it didn’t stop the US bombing Gaddafi’s home in 1986 in the hope of rubbing him out, or the Clinton administration firing cruise missiles at suspected guerrilla camps in Afghanistan in 1998, or Bush instructing the CIA to engage in "lethal covert operations" (based on an intelligence ‘finding’) to destroy Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation.
Nice and Legal, Though
White House and CIA lawyers claim that an intelligence ‘finding’ makes a difference because the ban on political assassinations doesn’t apply in wartime. Hey presto! the right sort of finding puts everything on a war footing. They also say that the prohibition won’t prevent the US taking action against terrorists. And in the wake of 9-11 it won’t stop the United States acting in self-defence. So… all the US has to do is invent or manufacture a ‘finding’, label the folk who stand in their way ‘terrorists’ and claim the murder was an act of self-defence in a war situation, and they’re home and dry.
Reports suggest the Bush administration has got together with Israel to establish the legal framework for a new American targeted-assassination policy. The Israelis, of course, are world experts. Annoying pockets of resistance to their land-grabs, ethnic cleansing, abductions, illegal settlements and other criminal activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are answered with the wholesale imposition of specially concocted warfare laws for the benefit of Israel’s ‘self-defence’, or ‘homeland security’, but which trample on everyone else’s rights. This is the sort of chicanery that suits Bush admirably as he presses ahead with his war-without-end on terror.
Israel’s liking for assassination and murder goes way back to pre-State days when such atrocities were practised against Arab and British targets by the Irgun, a thoroughly unpleasant organisation that believed political violence and terrorism were legitimate tools for removing obstacles to the Zionist cause and driving the Arabs off their lands. Assassination became official Israeli policy in 1999 when the military planned ‘initiated attacks’ to stop Yasser Arafat’s militia, the Tanzim, from firing on illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israelis demonstrated rare ingenuity in bumping off bomb maker Yahya Ayyesh. In 1996 this master-technician in the art of suicide bombing had been on Israel’s most-wanted list for 3 years. Shabak (Israel’s secret service) finally tricked a friend into giving Ayyash a booby-trapped cell phone. When Ayyash used it, Shabak detonated it.
Earlier this year they excelled themselves again by terminating Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh, ‘the Fox’, with an exploding headrest in his Mitsubishi.
However, their preferred method of assassination is the airstrike, which is lazy, lacking in finesse and often messy. In 2002 Israeli F-16 warplanes bombed the house of Sheikh Salah Shehadeh, the military commander of Hamas, in Gaza City scandalously killing not just him but at least 11 other Palestinians, including seven children, and wounding 120 others.
In 2004 at the second attempt Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, wheelchair-bound since the age of 12, and nine innocent bystanders were killed in a helicopter gunship attack. Yassin had survived an F16 bomb blast the previous year. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon characterised Yassin as "the mastermind of Palestinian terror" and a "mass murderer", which was comical coming from the war criminal who ran Israel’s death squad, Unit 101, and was found indirectly responsible for the massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.
According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem 231 Palestinians have been assassinated, 385 innocent bystanders murdered and heaven knows how many injured or mutiliated by Israel since the second intifada in 2000. "The use of state assassinations by Israel against Palestinian suspects is undermining the rule of law and fuelling the cycle of violence in the region" warns Amnesty International.
But this systematic extermination is regarded as "legal and legitimate" by Israel’s attorney-general. "If anyone has committed or is planning to carry out terrorist attacks, he has to be hit. It is effective, precise, and just," said Israeli minister Ephraim Sneh in 2001, careless of the frequent lack of precision, the collateral casualties and the possibility that his information is wrong… and the justice of it?
It’s catching though. The US State Department similarly describes its own hits on Al-Qaeda as "legal and necessary." But pre-emptive strikes are not America’s only tool. There’s the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay where hundreds of prisoners of ‘war’, from 13 years old upwards, are held long-term under inhuman conditions, without ‘due process’ and in flagrant breach of Geneva Conventions. Many have now been ‘rendered’ to other countries. It’s a living death and many will actually die in unlawful captivity, victims of a quite different form of assassination.
US Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News: “If you’ve got an organisation that has plotted or is plotting some kind of suicide bomber attack, for example, and they [the Israelis] have hard evidence of who it is and where they’re located, I think there’s some justification in their trying to protect themselves by pre-empting.”
This endorsement gave a welcome boost to Sharon’s accelerated assassination programme. Arafat claimed the Israeli cabinet had approved a plan to kill a large number of leading Palestinians. Sharon denied it but defended assassinations as a “defensive counter-terrorism measure”. He said he had sent the Palestinians a list of 100 terrorists the Palestinian Authority must arrest, otherwise Israel would continue to “exercise our right of self-defence.”
We’re told Israeli advisers are now training US special forces in aggressive counter-insurgency methods in Iraq, including the use of assassination squads against guerrilla leaders. Urban warfare specialists are sharing the skills they have honed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in order to help the US set up its own hunter-killer teams.
Israeli Death Squads in the UK?
Even more worrying are reports that Israeli death squads have been authorised to enter "friendly" countries and kill those suspected of being a threat to the Jewish state wherever they are hiding. Targeted killings were pretty much restricted to Occupied Palestine but the appointment of a new Mossad director, Meir Dagan, in 2002 changed all that.
Sharon was said to have given his old friend Dagan a mandate to revive the traditional methods of Mossad, including assassinations abroad, even at the risk to Israel’s bilateral relations. So our Home Secretary, the fragrant Jacqui Smith, had better tell us truthfully whether Mossad hoodlums are at this moment prowling the streets of London, Bradford, Glasgow and Manchester snuffing out plotters against their regime.
-Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.