One of Israel's top religious leaders has found backing in Jewish law for the government's policy of hunting and killing suspected Palestinian militants, a practice that has garnered U.S. and international condemnation.
Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau says Jewish law authorizes the government to engage in "active prevention" to stop Palestinians from carrying out terrorist attacks. Citing 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, other sages and Talmudic texts, Lau says Israel is fighting a "war of mitzvah" (a war of commandment or war of necessity) that requires "acts of self-defense, initiative and daring."
In its fight against a 10-month-old Palestinian uprising, Israel has targeted and killed a number of Palestinian militants it suspects of having planned or carried out acts of terrorism. Most of these suspects have been slain by missiles from helicopter gunships, booby-trapped cellular telephones or gunfire. Palestinians say about 30 people have been killed this way, including several bystanders.
Lau laid out his position in a series of lectures around the country this week. His comments were summarized by his office and made available to reporters.
In the most recent attack, a prominent activist in the military wing of the radical Islamic movement Hamas was killed Wednesday by Israeli tanks that fired on the man's red Volkswagen near the West Bank city of Nablus.
While defending the government's policy, Lau has been careful to say that the war of mitzvah must be fought by official parties and not by individuals. And the actions can only target killers and those who send them, not innocent civilians, he says.
"There is . . . a complete justification for the implementation of the principle 'He who tries to kill you, kill him first,' " said Lau, who is chief Ashkenazi rabbi--that is, for Israel's Jews of European ancestry.
"We denounce wholeheartedly the despicable shooting of civilians, by those who take the law into their own hands," he said.
Lau's comments are sure to feed an ongoing debate here on whether the "assassinations," as the Palestinians call them, do more harm than good. A debate--but not much of one: Public support for such tactics runs high in Israel.
Senior leftist politicians, like opposition leader Yossi Sarid, argue that the killings are counterproductive because they only further inflame Palestinian anger.
But a Gallup Poll published Friday found 46% of those surveyed favoring an "all-out" military offensive against Palestinian infrastructure and leaders. (Thirty percent favored the current policy of limited retaliation.) And while 80% opposed terrorism against Palestinians, pollsters said 15% approved, and three-quarters of the respondents said they "understood" the motives of Jewish terrorists.
Those results came after an ambush by suspected Jewish extremists on a Palestinian family last week, in which a baby and two adults were killed.
Hemi Shalev, a commentator for the Maariv newspaper, which co-sponsored the poll, said a sense of impotence and humiliation is pushing Israelis further and further to the right.
"Many people in Israel are living with the not entirely objective feeling that Israel is doing nothing while the Palestinians are hitting it with blow after blow," Shalev wrote in his analysis of the survey. "The 'handful of bad seeds,' as we call terrorist Jews, now have a fertile and wide ground on which to thrive."
All of this cranks up the pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to launch a full-scale military assault on the Palestinians, a move he has resisted thus far.
Adding to the pressure: On Friday, friends and relatives buried Ronen Landau, a 17-year-old Jew shot to death in an ambush Thursday night as he and his father drove to their home in a settlement just north of Jerusalem.
Landau was the second Jewish teenager killed this week. The other, 18, disappeared from his home in a community also on Jerusalem's disputed northern outskirts, and his stabbed, bullet-riddled body was discovered in Palestinian territory hours later.
In response to Landau's death, Israeli tanks rolled into a suburb of the Palestinian city of Ramallah early Friday and bombarded several Palestinian police posts. There were no injuries from the strike, but damage was extensive.
A coalition of settler leaders decried the latest killing and said it was high time to formally end the "imaginary and bleeding" cease-fire brokered last month by CIA Director George J. Tenet. The truce was never respected fully, but its formal existence has been one factor in restraining the two sides.
Early today, Israeli helicopter gunships attacked what the army described as a Palestinian weapons factory in the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis after mortars were fired on a Jewish settlement in the area. Palestinians have lobbed dozens of mortar shells toward Israeli targets this year, although there have been no serious casualties.
On Friday, Israeli radio reported that police discovered a watermelon rigged with explosives on a bus near Jerusalem's main shopping mall. Police sappers were able to deactivate the bomb, the radio reported.
Israeli authorities have been on high alert for days in anticipation of another bombing attack.
"There were specific warnings about the possibility of placing an explosive device in Jerusalem," regional Police Chief Miki Levy told Israeli television Friday night.
The escalating violence came as behind-the-scenes efforts to establish an international monitoring force continued. Israel has said it is willing to accept only a U.S. team of "observers"--not the international protection force demanded by the Palestinians. Israeli officials said Friday that they expected the U.S. government to present its proposed configuration--how many CIA agents, how many State Department officers and so forth--next week.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the member of the government most associated with attempting to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was quoted Friday as saying that two or three more suicide bombings are all that it would take to unleash the full force of the Israeli military on the Palestinians.