The report in the Maariv daily, confirmed by senior Israeli security sources, was the latest public challenge to the Jewish state's official insistence that its forces have abided by a strict code of ethics in battling a Palestinian uprising.

After gunmen from the Palestinian faction Fatah killed six soldiers at a checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Ram Allah on 20 February 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved stepping up the scale and variety of retaliations.

"The feeling was that this would be an eye for an eye," an ex-soldier who took part in the shooting spree three years ago told Maariv.

Tit for tat

Eighteen Palestinians were killed in various retaliatory attacks, including eight policemen shot while manning their checkpoints near Ram Allah and Nablus, another West Bank city.

"'We are going to liquidate Palestinian policemen at a checkpoint in revenge for our six soldiers that they killed'" 

Ex-Israeli commando, quoting his commander

"'We are going to liquidate Palestinian policemen at a checkpoint in revenge for our six soldiers that they killed'," the ex-commando quoted his commander as ordering the troops.

At one of three checkpoints raided the Palestinians managed to return fire, but caused no Israeli casualties, Maariv said.

Breaking the Silence

"The moment we knew we were going to eliminate them, we no longer saw them as human," another former commando said.

Among Palestinian's killed, eight
policemen were liquidated

Maariv's interviewees, whose names were withheld for what the newspaper called legal reasons, said they decided to come forward as part of Breaking the Silence, a campaign by former soldiers to expose alleged Israeli abuse of Palestinians.

The army said in a statement in response to the Maariv report that its forces attacked "checkpoints manned by Palestinian policemen who facilitated the passage and actively assisted terrorists".

The Palestinian Authority, which at the time denied that members of its security forces were complicit in attacks on Israelis, has since acknowledged some moonlighted as fighters.

Strategic planning

Reprisals have long loomed large in Israel's strategic planning, beginning in the 1950s when it answered cross-border raids by Arab irregulars in kind. After 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian armed groups during the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israel sent agents to assassinate that attack's masterminds.

But while Israel has openly assassinated leading Palestinian resistance fighters during the current conflict, it rejected charges by human rights groups that this constituted illegal extra-judicial killing, saying the men targeted were planning imminent attacks.

In its statement, the army said that after it lost six soldiers in the 2002 ambush, it had been "instructed by the political echelon to change the mode of operation and adjust it to the harsh reality on the ground".

Soldiers were told to "hunt down all those involved in terror activities, including members of the Palestinian Authority security apparatus" until the PA prevented "terror attacks emanating from Palestinian towns and cities".