the north american media col-lectively gasped January 13 when Palestinian Authority firing squads in Gaza City executed two Palestinian men "convicted' of collaborating with Israel in the killings of Palestinian militiamen. The two had been "tried' by Palestinian security courts, which, it is reported, gave them no right to a defence and no right to appeal. The international outcry was certainly legitimate, but why hasn't there been a similar furor over the summary execution of Palestinians by the Israelis?
Surely, both forms of killing must be examined for violations of international law, criminal law and rules of war. Israeli actions seem to be accomplished with nary a murmur. This despite the fact that senior military officials have now publicly admitted that there is a policy of "liquidation' of alleged but untried terrorist leaders. (See the New York Times, December 21.)
Interested in this question of summary executions, I made it my business on a recent tour of Israel to query officials on the matter. I was travelling with 11 others -- eight Miami-based academics, two Toronto lawyers, and an academic from Ottawa in a contingent hosted by a Hebrew studies prof from the University of Miami.
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On the first afternoon, we dialogue with a well-spoken member of the foreign press branch of the Israeli Defence Force, our first of many meetings with reps of groups involved in the peace/non-peace process.
I query him about newspaper accounts indicating that Israeli forces hunted down and killed members of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who had been in Israeli custody, were then handed over to the Palestinian Authority and released. Were those men "assassinated' by Israeli forces?, I ask.
"We wouldn't use that word,' he tells me, and proceeds to explain that the country is in a state of war and has a right to attack aggressors.
On our trip to the Knesset, we meet with members of the Israeli parliament, including Collette Avital, who is regarded as being on the left. (The terms left and right in Israel relate to views on the peace process rather than positions on the political spectrum.)
When I ask her about targeting of released Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, she says some of them died in the explosion of bombs they were making. When I press her, she expresses little concern and says those killings will be investigated. The question of when and by whom seems not to interest her.
Later that day, we meet with two officials of the Israeli foreign ministry. One is the director of relationships to the United States, the other the top expert on Middle Eastern affairs in their Palestinian division. When I ask about extra-judicial killings, both defend the activity, referring to American attempts to kill exiled Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.
But NOW contacted Michael Ratner, a professor at Columbia Law School, who says the bin Laden comparison is hardly fitting. "The U.S. targeting of bin Laden is illegal, but you could argue that they can't just go and arrest him. It's a different situation in Israel.'
Under civilian law, Ratner says, these kinds of killings are clearly illegal. And even if you look at them in the context of an internal conflict, he says, they violate not only customary international law but common article 3 of the Geneva Convention. "This one provision applies to all kinds of internal conflicts. The Israeli actions are basically murder, because they are carried out without due process.'
Why, then, hasn't this turned into a major international issue? Says Ratner, "I have my students working on that very question. If this were happening in Haiti, it would be on the front page of every newspaper.'
Paul Copeland is a Toronto lawyer and a member of the Law Union of Ontario.