The young man inspecting the rubble of a small farm building speaks in almost a whisper, but his words have an ominous ring of immediacy: "The violence will give birth to an explosion."
The man, who declines to identify himself, is one of thousands of Palestinians enraged by Israel's helicopter gunship strike here Tuesday that killed four Palestinians, two of them leaders of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.
The deaths of the four Palestinians brought to 35 the number of Palestinians killed in Israeli assassination operations during the 10-month old uprising.
While human rights groups condemn the assassinations as "extra-judicial killings," the Israeli leadership views them as successful blows to terrorism. According to media reports, the Israeli leadership early this month decided to expand the policy, including as targets people considered terrorists even if there is no evidence linking them to specific plans for an attack.
The decision to adopt this targeting method was reportedly made by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
But Israeli officials reject use of the term assassinations, on the grounds that the killings are carried out in self-defense. They've begun to use a new term for them: "interception operations."
Whatever they are called, Palestinian leaders and Israeli critics point to their explosive effect, saying they are contributing to the collapse of the Middle East cease-fire, and making it more difficult for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to rein in militants.
Israeli officials counter that they are necessary to save Israeli lives precisely because the cease-fire and hoped for security cooperation is not working, with the PA refusing to arrest militants bent on attacking Israeli targets. The failure of the PA to thwart attacks was vividly illustrated, they say, when an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber killed two Israeli soldiers and himself Monday night in the northern town of Binyamina. The Bethlehem helicopter strike, officials said, prevented a large-scale attack planned for the closing ceremony of the Maccabiah, a Jewish Olympics hosted by Israel, on July 23. Two Palestinians were killed in an explosion early Monday when they sought to prepare an attack for the opening ceremony that night, Israeli officials said.
The assassinations in Bethlehem prompted the first Palestinian sniper fire in two months toward the nearby Jewish settlement of Gilo, including the first use of mortars in the West Bank in what was viewed by Israel as a major escalation. The Israeli army hit back with tank fire against the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Jala, from where the mortars had been fired. Soon the army was announcing that it had brought in reinforcements to the West Bank in a move that raised Palestinian fears of a major incursion. There have been a series of recent armed thrusts into Palestinian territory, in what Palestinians see as a military offensive "in installments."
The eruption of shooting exchanges in an area that had lately been the quietest front of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation underscores the double-edged nature of the assassinations.
"I think the atmosphere has been created for the next bombing," says Amira Hass, Palestinian affairs correspondent for Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper. She recalled that in 1996, when Israel assassinated Yihya Ayyash, a Hamas bombmaker, a devastating series of bombings against civilian targets ensued.
Salah Tamari, a Palestinian legislator, says the PA will be hard-pressed to stop the shooting against Gilo. "The Authority is keen to adhere to the cease-fire, but there is a limit to what it can do. There is deep anger. Will such acts go unchallenged? I am not advocating a response, but I'm sure there will be one."
Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says there was no choice but to act. "Israel's interception operations are based on the clearest intelligence information that an attack is imminent, and that unless the operation is conducted, Israeli lives are in danger. The choice of not acting means losing Israeli lives."
Charged public mood
But Avshalom Vilan, a member of Knesset from the Meretz opposition party, suggests that while in this case there was clear information of plans for an attack, in other instances Palestinians are being made targets simply because of the charged public mood. "I am concerned that [decisionmakers] are being dragged along by the public mood, which is demanding warfare and results," Mr. Vilan says.
B'tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group, which strongly condemns the assassinations, stresses that because the public has no access to the information used by security forces, it is impossible to verify assertions that the targeted individuals were involved in violence. "We can't find anything to support the excuses Israel is giving for this policy. They release no evidence, and the decision of who to kill or not to kill is not open to any outside review," says Lior Yavne, a B'tselem staffer.
Mr. Yavne says that the security forces have been in a position to arrest some of those they assassinated. Amnesty International said in a statement two weeks ago: "The Israeli authorities are showing an utter disregard of the right to life."
The assassinations have been provoking Palestinian attacks and fueling the cycle of killing even as Israel portrays the Palestinians as the ones initiating violence, says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.
He says the suicide bombing in Binyamina by Islamic Jihad, came in response to the helicopter assassination of three Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank town of Jenin on July 1.
"Israel uses assassinations to escalate the situation, it wants to have excuses to carry out a dramatic military attack," Mr. Khatib says.
Israeli officials say the three were apparently preparing an attack and that their car had been filled with explosives when it was hit by Israeli helicopter fire.
Gideon Ezra, the Deputy Minister of Internal Security, says there was "no other way" but to carry out the helicopter strikes.
"What shall we do? Absorb attacks and do nothing?" he asks. "Every terrorist needs to know that he is in danger of losing his life."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor