The Work Of Assassins

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Na'ama Abu Sway excitedly prepared the family's iftar meal to break the fast of Ramadan last month. Her son Yussef, on the run for two years for shooting attacks on Israelis, would be there. He had sent word through his wife that he would sneak back for one of his occasional visits to the family home in Artas, a village south of Bethlehem, to share the meal with his parents. As the house was being readied for Yussef's arrival, Na'ama heard a hail of shots. Then her husband Ahmad screamed, "There's a young guy on the ground out there!" Na'ama rushed into the growing gloom of late afternoon. She recognized her son's denim jacket and jeans. He lay dead with a bullet in the back of his head, assassinated by an Israeli special unit that was guided to its target by Palestinian collaborators.

Vengeance came five days later. Two men arrived at Jalila Shahine's door in Bethlehem. All but their eyes were covered behind black face masks. One carried a pistol and wore the turquoise-and-black camouflage pants of the Palestinian Authority's Rapid Deployment Force. The other held a Kalashnikov. They grabbed Jalila's son Adnan, 38, and dragged him down the street. Jalila pleaded with the men not to take him. His hands bound behind his back, the terrified house painter cried to Jalila, "Don't leave me, Mother!" The man with the pistol pushed Jalila away and forced Adnan onto his knees in the empty street. His first shot hit Adnan in the shoulder; the next entered his neck and killed him. As the two gunmen hurried down an alley, Jalila wailed over her son's body. "God is most great," she lamented. On her knees, the grief-stricken woman took the blood from Adnan's wounds and smeared it across her face.

The big street clashes of the three-month-long Aqsa intifadeh are slowing for now, as Palestinian negotiators sweat through peace talks with Israeli and U.S. officials. But on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a dirty counterpart to the intifadeh is gathering pace, marked by deceit, ambush and death. In the past two months, Israeli special units have assassinated at least 13 Palestinians like Abu Sway who they believe were involved in attacks against Israel. And Palestinian traitor hunters are also taking a toll. Men like Shahine, accused of collaboration in those attacks, also face death, either by street-side assassination or by capital sentences handed down after trials of only a couple of hours.

The assassinations are controversial. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has had to defend the morality of Israeli actions in Knesset committees. But Israeli military sources say the hits are effective. They undermine the confidence of Palestinian militiamen, and they also spread suspicion among the gunmen that their comrades may be collaborators.

The Palestinian hits are fewer in number--so far less than half a dozen--but they evince a kind of street justice that is particularly brutal. And just as Israel's high-tech attacks are designed to intimidate and scare, the low-tech snatch-and-grab killings like the one that took Jalila Shahine's son are meant to send a message of their own: Don't inform to the Israelis. In late November, longtime collaborator Kassem Khleif was killed in a drive-by shooting as he left a gym. The word quickly got around his hometown of Bethlehem, where his pro-Israeli sympathies were well known. This rough Palestinian punishment isn't enforced just on the street. Palestinian courts offer quick trials and hangings for arrested collaborators.

For Israeli military planners, the assassination game is so important that they devote many of their most high-tech resources to the operation. Through a network of antennas across the West Bank, the Shin Bet domestic-security service can ascertain the location of a cellular phone's user to within a few yards. Drones flying almost a mile high zoom in on targets to give a live video feed to the Shin Bet's operations room in a nondescript gray building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Aviv. The drone can follow a target as he travels, building a thick intelligence dossier on his movements or relaying to snipers on the ground that their mark is approaching. The Shin Bet has a list of names of about 100 potential targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And it has the army's finest marksmen to call upon when it decides to strike.

Abu Sway was gunned down by a special air-force unit called Shaldag, Hebrew for Kingfisher. Shaldag is one of a handful of elite units that take the cream of Israel's young fighters. They're trained to sit camouflaged in their hideouts for as long as a day without moving. As commandos, they are also able to memorize maps and move across open country with pinpoint accuracy. The Israeli equivalent of the American Navy SEALS, Shayetet 13, has also been involved. Last week Shayetet 13 snipers took out the most senior official so far when they shot dentist Thabet Thabet, the head of Yasser Arafat's Fatah Party in the West Bank town of Tulkarem.

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