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12 Shots, One Corpse - They Call It Pinpoint Prevention
Published on Thursday, August 16, 2001 in the Guardian of London
12 Shots, One Corpse - They Call It Pinpoint Prevention
by Suzanne Goldenberg in Bethlehem, West Bank
 
Israeli undercover agents stalked a Palestinian militant as he drove towards his home in Hebron yesterday, and fired a dozen bullets into his body at close range on a day when the West Bank hovered dangerously close to all-out war.

Local Palestinians said two or three members of Israeli special forces, dressed as Arabs and driving a blue and white truck with Palestinian license plates, idled by a road on a slope overlooking the city, waiting for the car of Emad Abu Sneineh.

When Abu Sneineh, a local commander in Yasser Arafat's Fatah militias, pulled up, the Israelis opened fire, hitting him in the head, chest and stomach before speeding off to an Israeli section of the town.

They said there was no attempt to arrest Abu Sneineh, who was alone.

The assassination was the latest in an Israeli campaign which has killed 39 Palestinian activists and 17 innocent bystanders.

The international community has condemned the assassinations. However, Israel argues that the assassination of Palestinian activists - which security officials call a "policy of pinpoint prevention" - prevents the killing of Israelis by bomb-makers and gunmen.

In recent days, Israel has also claimed that it has assassinated Palestinians in the process of planning suicide attacks, including the two most senior leaders of the Hamas in the West Bank, who were killed by guided missiles in their office in Nablus. The Israeli army said after that assassination that it had acted to "prevent acts of murder and terrorism against Israeli civilians". However, it offered no convincing proof.

The killing came only hours after Israeli tanks retreated from the gates of Bethlehem in a threatened invasion seen as the opening of a full-scale war against the Palestinians.

Yesterday, as soldiers and tanks hunkered down on the edges of Bethlehem, Israeli officials insisted the invasion might yet go ahead if gunmen again open fire on the Jewish settlement of Gilo, poised between Jerusalem and the suburb of Beit Jala.

"They have to stop firing, period," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israel's hardline prime minister, Ariel Sharon. "If they do not we will immediately implement our original plan. If we see within the next 24 hours, or more, that they resume sniper fire or shooting at Gilo, we will respond in kind."

Amid the epic tensions in the West Bank - two days after the invasion of the northern city of Jenin - Abu Sneineh, aged 28 and a father of five, was a relatively low-level operative.

Palestinian and Israeli security sources say he led a cell of gunmen who have regularly fired on the illegal Jewish settlement that occupies the heart of Hebron.

Yesterday, the city was braced for another night of gunfire after hundreds of mourners, some shooting in the air, followed a stretcher carrying Abu Sneineh's body to the cemetery. Shops downed shutters as businesses declared a protest strike.

In Bethlehem, meanwhile, Palestinian officials said Israeli forces had occupied four Palestinian houses in an area under Israeli security control, and imposed a curfew on three nearby villages.

The specter of a re-occupation of Palestinian-ruled towns in the West Bank has infuriated Palestinians, who accuse Israel of plotting a full-scale war. They also say the assassinations make it impossible to convince their followers to stop shooting at Gilo.

"This has become very personal - not political," said Kamal Hmeid, the Fatah leader in Bethlehem, including Beit Jala. "All the people expect to be killed at any moment by helicopters or tanks. They sit around thinking: 'If we are going to be killed in the end by Israel, we want to kill as many Israelis as we can before we die.'"

Abu Sneineh's assassination ratchets up a week of steeply escalating tensions after a suicide bomber killed 15 Israelis inside a Jerusalem pizzeria. In the days since then, Israel has steadily deployed greater hardware against the Palestinians, and escalated its efforts to destroy Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The measures have gone relatively unremarked because there were virtually no Palestinian casualties. However, Reuven Pedatzur, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a security analyst for the liberal Ha'aretz newspaper, said Israel and the Palestinians were approaching a point of no return.

"This is a rolling war," he said. "We are rolling towards an all-out war against the Palestinians. What happened in the last few days was that we were not making war against terrorist individuals any more, but against the Palestinians."

Israel's military operations against the Palestinians in the last week include: the deployment of F-16 jets to drop two one-ton bombs on a Palestinian police compound in a wealthy residential area of Ramallah; the seizure of Orient House, the unofficial PLO headquarters in Arab East Jerusalem; the invasion of Jenin, and the threatened invasion of the Bethlehem area.

Three Israeli cabinet ministers said yesterday that an invasion of Bethlehem was no longer unthinkable. "One should not consider things that were perceived to be immune to be immune any longer," said the public security minister, Uzi Landau.

Israeli security officials told Israel radio the operation had merely been postponed for 24 hours.

In part, such statements are bravado, intended to buffer Mr Sharon's hardline reputation against accusations that he caved in to pressure from the US and the European Union by ordering the tanks to halt at the gates of the city. In Washington, officials condemned the plan as "provocative".

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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