Published on Thursday, December 14, 2000 in the Boston Globe
Palestinian Activist Slain, the Third in 3 Days
by Dan Ephron
JERUSALEM - For the third time in three days, a Palestinian was gunned down yesterday in an area where no clashes were taking place, part of what Palestinians call an Israeli policy of assassinating their key activists.

Abbas al-Awawi, 28, was a member of the armed wing of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which has killed scores of Israelis in bombing attacks over the years. He had been on Israel's wanted list for four years.

Awawi was shot three times in the chest on a commercial street in his hometown of Hebron. Witnesses were unsure whether his attacker brushed against him or fired from a distance.

''I was talking to him on the street and he turned and said goodbye. A minute later he was lying dead on the ground,'' said a relative, who heard no shots.

The attack resembled slayings in other West Bank towns on Monday and Tuesday. Palestinians say Israel has assassinated at least 11 activists from various groups since an uprising began in the West Bank and Gaza 10 weeks ago.

It's a charge Israel doesn't expressly deny.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said this week Israel has a policy of tracking down Palestinians who kill Israelis. An army spokesman would neither confirm nor deny Israeli involvement in the killing of Awawi.

''The army operates in effective ways against those who harm Israelis,'' he said. ''It does so out of self-defense.''

Palestinian human rights groups say the policy, even when those targeted are known militants, amounts to summary execution. Others say the assassinations only harm Israel, fueling Palestinian anger and breeding more violence.

''When they are hunting those activists, nobody knows if the individuals are really responsible for violence. There are no specific charges, no specific accusations,'' said Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center.

In some cases, Israel has openly gone after leaders of Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization's main faction, which has led the Palestinian insurrection.

After helicopters rocketed the car of local Fatah leader Hussein Abayat on Nov. 9 near Bethlehem, Israel said he had led several shooting attacks against soldiers and civilians. Abayat and two women bystanders were killed in the strike.

In other cases, members of the smaller and more militant Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups have been the targets.

Before the uprising, when Israeli and Palestinian security forces cooperated to thwart attacks on Israel, Palestinians routinely jailed Hamas and Islamic Jihad members and closely tracked other key activists.

Awawi spent much of this year behind bars in a Palestinian security compound in the West Bank. He was freed along with scores of other Islamists in the first weeks of the uprising.

Members of Islamic Jihad are thought to be behind at least two bombing attacks in the past two months. One of its members, Anwar Ahmed Himran, was shot dead in front of his stationery store in Nablus this week. Witnesses said he was sprayed by a burst of automatic fire from a nearby Israeli Army position.

''I think it's clear Israel wants to assassinate those Hamas and Islamic Jihad people who were freed from Palestinian jails,'' said Hussam Khader, a Fatah leader in the Nablus area and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Khader, who spent years in Israeli prisons and now helps direct the uprising, said Israel relies on a web of Palestinian collaborators who supply pinpoint information on the whereabouts of activists and sometimes take part in the killings.

''There are still a lot of collaborators in the West Bank and Gaza and this is a catastrophe for the Palestinian people,'' said Khader. ''They have collaborators everywhere - in the mosques, in the government offices, and in the security forces.''

Last week, a Palestinian court sentenced one man to death after convicting him of helping Israel kill his cousin with a bomb-laden car last month. The cousin, Ibrahim Bani Oudeh, was a top military commander of Hamas.

Four years ago, when Israel killed Hamas's chief bomb-maker, Yahya Ayaash, with a booby-trapped cell phone, the group retaliated with the worst bombing wave in Israel's history, killing 60 people in 10 days.

That episode and other attacks that followed Israeli assassinations convinced some Israeli analysts that the policy did more harm than good.

But Meir Dagan, a retired major general and former head of Israel's bureau for counterterrorism, said targeting militants is sometimes the only possible strategy.

''I agree that in some of those incidents we paid a price. But don't judge it by one or two cases. Look at it from a wider point of view,'' Dagan said. ''It's not a policy. You do it when you have no other military option.''

© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company