Israel takes aim at politicians

Israeli soldiers yesterday assassinated the political leader of the Palestinian group PFLP.

The Israeli army yesterday assassinated the most senior Palestinian political leader it has killed so far.

Mustafa Zibri, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, died in his third-floor office in a residential suburb of the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israeli helicopter gunships fired at least two missiles through Zibri's arched office window, killing him as he sat at his desk.

The Ramallah suburb of al-Bireh is home to many Palestinians who have returned in recent years from the US. Ghada Daas, whose two daughters were playing in the room underneath Mr. Zibri's office at the time of the attack, says 22 US citizens live in the building.

"This was an unbelievably close call. I'm amazed my girls came out of this OK," Ms. Daas said after the Israelis attacked. "How dare they not even consider the people in this building?"

Israel - which insists that a seven-day period without any attacks precede the implementation of a US-brokered cease-fire - has carried out dozens of similar assassinations in the past few months. The tactic, it argues, is one of self-defense.

"In recent days," says an Israel Defense Forces statement released after the killing, Zibri and members of the group's military wing "prepared for a number of ... bombing attacks, which were supposed to be carried out in the immediate future."

Many governments have condemned the assassination policy. In the US, officials have sent mixed signals that Palestinians say amount to a "green light" for the Israelis. The State Department has condemned the targeting as provocative, but Vice President Dick Cheney has said "there's some justification in their trying to protect themselves by preempting" terrorist attacks.

Zibri's killing is the clearest evidence yet that Israel is blurring the distinction between Palestinian militants and their political overseers.

Israeli officials argue that the only way to stop a suicide bomber en route to an Israeli target is to kill the bomber first, but recent assassinations have reached deep into the political echelon of Palestinian organizations.

On July 31, for instance, Israeli forces killed Jamal Mansur, the leading political activist for the Islamist party Hamas in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Two young boys were killed in that attack.

Zibri is considered the most senior victim so far, in part because the PFLP is one of three groups that make up the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella grouping of Palestinian movements.

While the killing of Mansur may have had more impact because Hamas is a larger party than the PFLP and is more militarily active, Hamas is not a PLO member. PFLP's role in the PLO makes Zibri's killing more symbolic.

Known by his nom de guerre "Abu Ali," Zibri founded the party's military wing and became the top deputy to George Habash, the PFLP's patriarch and one of the grand old men of the Palestinian movement. Zibri took over as secretary-general of the PFLP last year.

The leftist PFLP has long pursued armed struggle to achieve Palestinian goals. In the 1970s it gained notoriety for hijacking civilian airliners, but the party renounced this tactic, and in the late 1990s, many of its leaders decided to return to the Palestinian territories and work with - but not join - the Palestinian Authority, led by Yasser Arafat.

Zibri's arrival in Ramallah in 1999, following years of exile in Syria and Jordan, was a move that the peace process made possible. But Israel says that promises made at the time of Zibri's return - that he would not engage in militancy - were not kept.

"His résumé is soaked in the blood of his Jewish and Israeli victims," Israeli spokesman Ra'anan Gissin yesterday told CNN.

Even the IDF's own statement says that the PFLP's recent car-bombings "have not claimed lives." Zibri was no pacifist, but the Israelis have not demonstrated that he was involved in the day-to-day work of mounting attacks on Israelis at the time of his death.

"Usually, this level of leadership is not directly or personally involved in detailed [militant] activities," says Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian analyst.

Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, acknowledges that there is a tacit understanding among warring groups not to kill leaders.

But in this conflict, he says, such distinctions are fuzzy. "What about a leader of a terrorist group - is a he a terrorist, or is he a leader?"

Israel employs several tactics that seem to work against the resumption of peacemaking. Apart from assassinating senior Palestinian political leaders, it also routinely attacks Palestinian security facilities and personnel, even though the Israelis have long insisted that Palestinian police protect Israel from the attacks of militants.

Mr. Sandler doesn't entertain a question about the strategic coherence of such strategies. "What we are going through here is a strategy of pain, not a strategy of victory.... The question is, which side will be the first one to yell out, 'Stop it.' "

One answer can be inferred from the comments of Khader Abu Abarra, a senior PFLP activist in Bethlehem: The Israelis have "opened the gates of hell" in killing Zibri. "There will be wide revenge and the coming days will prove this."

Ben Lynfield contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.

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