The Israeli government last night stood accused of sanctioning the systematic hunting down and assassination of Palestinian activists it deems to be security threats in the West Bank and Gaza.
As Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister, clings to the tattered shreds of his reputation as a peacemaker before next month's elections, Israel's Peace Now movement broke a long silence to allege that he is giving the army a free hand to eliminate suspected opponents.
The eruption of anger against Israel's assassination campaign follows the slaying on New Year's Eve of a middle-aged dentist who was a senior official in the West Bank health service, and a leading figure in Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation, Thabet Thabet. For many peace activists, Thabet was a friend, and trusted ally. He was among the first Palestinians to dare to reach out to Israelis during the late 1980s.
The shock of his death - delivered by long-range automatic weapons fire outside his home in broad daylight - has brought belated scrutiny to a military strategy for containing the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza that has been in force since November 9.
There is no accurate count of those systematically targeted for elimination as the military does not always own up to specific killings. Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority says 19 people have been assassinated; other Palestinian sources put the figure as high as 30.
Israel has always claimed the right to selectively assassinate its enemies. But the new strategy threatens not only combatants, but those coordinating attacks. With Thabet's death, even the political leaders of Fatah are potential prey, although until the outbreak of the intifada, the group was Israel's main partner in the peace process, and cooperated with Israeli security services in arresting Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombers.
The new assassination policy is confirmed by Israeli officials, who have owned up to some of the killings, and have not denied a hand in Thabet's death. "I can tell you unequivocally what the policy is," the deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh, told Israel Radio last week. "If anyone has committed or is planning to carry out terrorist attacks, he has to be hit. It is effective, precise, and just."
But after weeks of stunned silence, the Israeli left is no longer willing to tolerate that argument - especially when applied to Thabet. "Gunning down a person coming out of his house in broad daylight is a mafia-style action and it is not legitimate for any government," said Yehudith Harel.
The outcry corresponds with a deepening sense of betrayal among the Israeli left, who accuse Mr Barak of squandering a chance to negotiate peace, and of resorting to military firepower and economic punishment to end the uprising.
Ms Harel, a peace activist, worked closely with Thabet from 1988 to foster talks between Israelis and Palestinians. In 1994, when her soldier son was killed in a road accident, Thabet came to his funeral at a military cemetery - a generous act for a Palestinian nationalist who had been sentenced to three years' house arrest in the early 1970s.
"What kind of military activity is this?" she asked. "This is absolutely illegal."
On Tuesday, a lawyer acting for Thabet's widow set out to prove just that, lodging an injunction in Israel's supreme court to stop the army from killing activists of Yasser Arafat's Fatah organisation, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel does not have capital punishment.
"All these killings are against Israeli law," said Naila Attiya, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. "There are assassination plans, and maybe by going to the court we can stop them from being carried out."
Yesterday, Palestinian officials said they were gathering evidence to try Mr Barak and his government for war crimes.
"We consider the Israeli government, the prime minister and all members of the Israeli government as criminals who should be prosecuted," Yasser Abd Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister, told a press conference. He said the assassinations could derail what little is left of the peace process.
Israeli military officials obliquely announced the new policy in early November, saying they were moving towards "initiated attacks" to stop Fatah militia, known locally as tanzim , from firing on Jewish outposts or settlers in the West Bank, or placing roadside bombs. The first to die under the policy, Hussein Abayat, was killed on November 9.
Soon after, the military stepped up the liquidation policy, calculating that the targeting of Fatah activists would be less damaging to Israel's international image then the bombardments of Palestinian cities ordered earlier in the intifada.
Until Thabet was killed on December 31, the Israeli public was broadly supportive. But the assassination of such a high-profile figure was too much for many to stomach.
"He was a man of peace," said Uri Avnery, who has been active in the Israeli peace movement for nearly 30 years. "He cooperated with us for years. Even when he was under arrest years ago, he spoke about a peace. But he was also a patriot, and when the war of liberation started, I suppose he was part of the mass movement."
Ms Attiya's appeal to the supreme court, which she says is based on the Geneva Convention as well as Israeli law, marks the first time a prime minister has been asked to answer in court for Israel's decades-old policy of assassinating opponents it accuses of plotting acts of terror.
A former commando, Mr Barak famously put on a blond wig and a dress to sneak into Beirut 27 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 - one of the most romantic figures of the Palestinian movement.
Mr Barak - who doubles as Israel's defence minister - told a recent meeting of the foreign and defence committee of the parliament that he had given his approval to the operations. Several MPs asked Mr Barak to stop. He refused.
In an interview on Newsnight, he issued a coy denial of a new assassination policy, but admitted: "There is a clear kind of permanent policy here to hit those who hit you."
For Israeli peace activists, Thabet's killing is especially tragic as he was directly responsible for saving the lives of 20 Israeli soldiers only weeks ago. In mid-October, days after a Palestinian mob hacked to death two Israeli reservists who strayed into the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thabet intervened with the Israeli army to arrange the return of soldiers who had blundered into Tulkaram.
"This is a reward for people who save the lives of Israeli soldiers," said Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001