Middle East Watch Report: Israel's Death Squads Defy U.S. Human Rights Criticism

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Middle East Watch Report: Israel's Death Squads Defy U.S. Human Rights Criticism

When Israeli soldiers dressed as Arab women pulled 23-year-old Samir Sha'ath from a car and immediately pumped three bullets into his brain on the main road entering the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza on July 8, it was more than just another bloody assassination of a Palestinian activist by an Israel Defense Force death squad. It also was the defiant Israeli response to a newly published 180-page report on the IDF undercover units issued by Middle East Watch.

Just one week prior to Sha'ath's killing, Middle East Watch, a branch of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights organization, held a press conference in Jerusalem announcing the report's conclusions. Acting executive director Kenneth Roth charged that IDF undercover units have "conducted unjustified patterns of killing" in the occupied territories, resulting in the deaths of at least 120 Palestinians since the December 1987 start of the uprising.

The report, entitled A License To Kill, based its conclusions on fieldwork involving cross-checking of cases and interviews with IDF soldiers and Palestinian eyewitnesses. For many who attended the press conference, the report was hardly news.

A License To Kill painstakingly documents 20 killings by the undercover units. Seven of the victims were 16 years old or younger. Only 2 of the 20 were carrying firearms when killed. While many Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups have published similar conclusions in the past three years, the new report is unique in that for the first time Israeli soldiers from the death squads themselves are interviewed.

Although only one of the five soldiers interviewed permitted his name to be published, all testified clearly that the units do indeed target Palestinian activists for summary execution. One soldier said that while he was in Gaza his unit was briefed about 13 Palestinians on the "wanted list."

"At the nightly briefings we were always told that these 13 had to die," the soldier reported. "The officers said, 'Keep your eyes open and kill them.'" Champagne would be sent to a unit each time it killed a wanted person, and a celebration would be held. Since the interviews were conducted before Samir Sha'ath was killed, the report does not reveal whether he was one of the wanted 13.

There is little doubt that the IDF, by employing the Salvadoran army's infamous death-squad tactics, has struck a blow to the intifada. While Palestinian popular support for the uprising remains strong among all social, political, religious and economic sectors in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the strength of the intifada depends on the work of the young activists. They are the ones who organize the occupied population politically. It is they who first warn individuals who secretly collaborate with the Israeli intelligence service, and who then kill those who continue. It is the young activists who comprise the armed groups increasingly using force against Israelis. For all these reasons killing the young activists has become, as one undercover unit soldier explained, an Israeli "obsession."

A Long Delay

Other than including interviews with IDF personnel, A License to Kill actually offers little new information concerning Israeli death squads. In fact, some in the human rights field in the occupied territories are critical of Middle East Watch for its long delay in dealing with the issue.

"After years of such actions by the Israeli military here and after Al- Haq published a report and after the Palestine Human Rights Information Center published a report and even after B'tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, published a report, I am wondering what now is the meaning of this (Middle East Watch) report," said Raji Sourani, director of the Gaza Center for Rights and Law. "Why did they wait so long? I think it shows negligence by such a human rights organization. …