Israel has a hit list – made public in August 2001 – of Palestinians it accuses of carrying out or planning attacks against Israeli targets, principally leaders and activists from the Hamas resistance movement.

Statistics vary on how many of the targets have been struck off that list as the Israeli military refuses to disclose details of many undercover operations.

But most Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups say Israeli forces have carried out up to 90 targeted killings – to use the Israeli term - since November 2000 when the new policy was announced by the government.

Far from being "targeted", the strikes on residential areas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are a blunt instrument that have killed many bystanders, including women and children.

The attacks are often carried out with helicopter-borne missiles and at times, sniper fire or exploding telephones.

Pilots' petition

Last week, 27 reserve pilots in the Israeli Air Force presented a signed petition refusing to take part in "illegal and immoral" strikes on Palestinian areas. 

"We refuse to participate in air force attacks on civilian populations," said the letter, which was sent on Wednesday 24 September to the head of the air force, Major General Dan Halutz. "We refuse to continue harming innocent civilians."

"We will continue to hunt terrorists ... we have no intention of harming civilians"

Major General Dan Halutz,
Head of Israeli Air Force

The petition is similar to a letter signed by hundreds of reserve soldiers who have pledged not to serve in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

Most of the pilots who signed the petition have not been on active duty in recent years, the air force said. It was not clear whether any had been involved in the strikes.

Halutz dismissed the pilots' petition,warning members of the military against taking political positions. "We do not choose our wars or missions," he told Israeli television.  "We will continue to hunt terrorists," he said, "We have no intention of harming civilians."

The strikes policy has broad support among Israelis, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government saying they are the most effective way to attack "terrorists" who hide among civilians.

“(The Israelis) say that they are assassinating leaders and activists of Islamic groups to weaken the organisations. But, it is the contrary,” Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, a spokesman for the Palestinian group Hamas in Gaza told Aljazeera.

“Day after day, Hamas is getting stronger. They may have succeeded in assassinating a number of our leaders and fighters.

But we have also succeeded in penetrating their security apparatus to explode their buses, for example. Their occupation is illegal. This is a war and we have every right to retaliate and stop their aggression.”

'Active self-defence'

The international community along with human rights groups have repeatedly condemned the killings, saying they are illegal and only serve to increase resistance to Israel’s occupation.

Ariel Sharon claims the policy is essential to Israeli security

The London-based human rights group Amnesty International calls the killings “extra-judicial executions” which are “absolutely prohibited by international law”.

This opinion is shared by the European Union which has said the policy is “unacceptable and contrary to the rule of law”. Washington, Israel’s closest ally, has also made clear its disapproval.

These condemnations have not been heeded by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who has repeatedly insisted that “targeted killings will continue.”

"The fight against terror must be increased, because our target is to harm the terrorists, their helpers and operators," he said.

Sharon’s policy of “active self-defence” has been criticised by Israel’s attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein who said it had to be carried out with the “utmost caution” and “only as a last resort”.

Some Israeli opposition politicians have the same view.

“My position is that this is not a policy that can be supported unless the suspect is literally and practically a ticking bomb and an immediate danger to Israelis,” Shlomo Ben Ami, former foreign minister of Israel and member of the leftist Labour party told Aljazeera.

Outside the law

Human rights groups have raised many concerns about the manner in which Israeli intelligence choose their targets – which is not open to examination by any judicial authority – to evidence that some victims could have been arrested, instead of killed.

Civilian bystanders are often caught up in the carnage

“If these people are guilty, they should be brought to trial, not assassinated,” said Naomi Chazan of the left-wing Meretz party.

Nayla Attiyah, a lawyer acting on behalf of a wife of a victim – Thabit Thabit, lodged an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court.

“All these killings are against Israeli law. There is no credible evidence against these people being targeted. Why don’t they just arrest these people. They have the ability to do that.”

Thabit Thabit’s assassination caused an outcry. He was a leading figure in the Fatah movement and a peace activist.

“The policy has less to do with self-defence as the Israeli government says and  more to do with wiping out the political leadership of the Palestinian people,” Attiyah, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, told Aljazeera.

“Why did they have to assassinate Abu Ali Mustafa (the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine)?

"This move was to assert that no Palestinian political leader was exempt from being a possible target. Why didn’t they just arrest him if they claimed to have evidence against him?”

Return to old habits

The first extra-judicial execution under the current policy was carried out on 9 November 2000 – two months after the start of the second Palestinian uprising or Intifada.

Fatah activist Husayn Abayat was the target – two Palestinian bystanders were also killed when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles at Abayat’s car.

Ex-Israeli PM Ehud Barak is no
stranger to assassination operations against Palestinians

However, the killing of opponents is not new. It is a decades-old practice of the Israeli government and army to assassinate individuals they accuse of planning attacks.

“It has been the policy of the Zionists since they occupied our land,” Rantisi said.

“They did it in Lebanon and other countries over the years as well. But after every one of their crimes – every time they assassinate our leaders, you witness more support in the Palestinian street for Hamas.”

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak himself carried out assassinations. Dressed as a woman, Barak – then deputy military chief - sneaked into Beirut 29 years ago to assassinate three Palestinians suspected of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

He was also involved in the 1988 killing in Tunis of Abu Jihad, the PLO’s military leader and second in command.