Israel unleashes its death squads
Sunday Times - 19 Jan 2003
Israel unleashes its death squads
ISRAELI death squads have been authorised to enter "friendly" countries and assassinate opponents in a move that raises the prospect of political killings in Australia.
Agents of the Israeli secret service Mossad have been given free rein to kill those deemed to be a threat to the Jewish state – wherever they are hiding.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has until now refused permission for assassinations on the home ground of allies, has reversed the policy as part of a more aggressive approach to terrorism.
The move was revealed by former Mossad agents in a series of interviews with US news agency United Press International. It was later confirmed by US intelligence officials.
They said the policy raised the potential for killings in countries with close ties to Israel, including the US, Britain and Australia.
One Mossad official told UPI the policy shift was prompted by "a huge budget" increase for the agency as part of "a tougher stance in fighting global jihad (or holy war)".
"Targeted killings" have, in the main, been restricted to the West Bank and Gaza because "no one wanted such operations on their territory", one Israeli official said.
But that is changing with the appointment late last year of new Mossad director Meir Dagan.
Another former Mossad agent told UPI: "Diplomatic constraints have prevented Mossad from carrying out preventive operations (assassinations) on the soil of friendly countries until now."
Mr Sharon and Mr Dagan were now "reversing that policy, even if it risks complications to Israel's bilateral relations".
A third source said Mr Sharon wanted "greater operational maneuverability" for Mossad.
Asked if that meant assassinations within allied countries, he said: "It does."
The move comes in the wake of the assassination by the CIA of al-Qaeda suspects in Yemen.
Qaed Sinan Harithi and five other suspects were killed last year when a unmanned Predator spy plane fired a Hellfire missile at their car.
That attack is thought to have limited the ability of the US to protest about Mossad killings abroad.
"That (the Predator attack) was done on the soil of a friendly ally," an official at the US Congress said. "I don't know on what basis we would be able to protest Israel's actions."
Israel has in the past sent hit squads to kill opponents in hostile countries such as Lebanon, and snatch squads have been used extensively throughout the world.
Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was captured in Argentina in 1960, taken to Israel and executed.
In 1986, scientist Mordechai Vanunu was snatched in Rome and transported to Israel after revealing details of Israel's nuclear weapons program. He was sentenced to 18 years jail, only being released from solitary confinement in 1998.
One of the few known cases of Mossad hitmen carrying out an assassination on friendly soil occurred on July 21, 1973, when a Mossad team shot dead Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchikhi as he walked home from the cinema with his pregnant wife in the Norwegian ski resort of Lillehammer.
The assassins apparently mistook Bouchikhi for Hassan Salameh, a PLO intelligence chief suspected of masterminding the killing of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Gullow Gjeseth, who led a Norwegian Government inquiry into the shooting, said: "This was much more than a murder. This was a violation of Norwegian sovereignty."
In January 1996, Israel paid undisclosed damages to Bouchikhi's family, but refused to admit responsibility for the killing.
Mossad is thought to have struck again in October 1995, when the head of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, Fathi al-Shikai, was gunned down on the streets of Malta. The hit, though never formally claimed, had all the trademarks of the agency.
A return to such killings is expected to raise concerns among Israel's Western allies.
The assassinations are likely to be carried out by a unit of Mossad's secret Metsada department called the Kidon, a Hebrew word meaning "bayonet".
The agents will have to answer to Mr Dagan, who has been described by a CIA agent as having a "real killer instinct".
Officially, Israel has refused to confirm or deny the policy change.
Kim Farber, a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told UPI: "There is so little information available on this, there is nothing I can add."
A spokesman for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer yesterday refused to comment on the possibility of Mossad agents operating in Australia.