Now that the abrasive and pugnacious Yitzhak Shamir has been replaced by the gravel-toned, pragmatic Yitzhak Rabin as Israel’s prime minister, should we anticipate a change for the better in Israel’s human rights record? Rabin cleverly campaigned for his June victory at the polls by ambiguously criticizing Likud’s ability to confront “with appropriate means” Israel’s “security” situation. Israeli leftists understood that Israel’s most draconian and embarrassing policies against Palestinians — expulsions, arbitrary killings, and university and institution closures — will be halted. At the same time, the right-wing Labor camp to which Rabin belongs expected that the “iron-fist” general would allow the military the means to end the Palestinian intifada in short order.

Nearly everyone overlooked the fact that Likud’s failed policies in the Occupied Territories were based on Rabin’s strategies as minister of defense, a position he held from 1984 until 1990, well into the third year of the intifada, when he was replaced by Moshe Arens. Rabin ordered group expulsions, initiated the infamous break-their-bones policy against demonstrators, closed all Palestinian schools for much of his tenure, and permitted the military to operate under broad open-fire regulations. [1]

During the election campaign, Likud answered Rabin’s criticism of its handling of the intifada by pointing with pride to the “success” of its lethal undercover units. These special army units were set up secretly under Rabin’s authority. They were expanded and made public by Arens. The undercover units have been known to be active in the West Bank and Gaza since at least April 1988, when one unit was responsible for a triple killing in Gaza during an arrest operation that went awry. [2] At the time Rabin strongly denied the formation of what foreign and Israeli journalists were publicly calling “death squads.”

Since then, these units have been responsible for killing more than 100 Palestinians in a variety of circumstances ranging from outright summary execution to sloppiness and use of excessive fire. [3] The number of killings and injuries in undercover raids in the Occupied Territories dramatically increased in the first half of 1992, as the Likud was under right-wing pressure to intensify its repression.

According to field investigations and eyewitness accounts, the undercover units typically arrive in Palestinian residential areas in a car with Arab license plates. Not uniformed, they often dress in traditional Arab clothing and appear to know exactly where their targeted person is, identifying him by face, name or simply by clothing, as in the case of youths who are targeted for being masked. The soldiers are sometimes accompanied by local collaborators or Shinbet officers and may carry photographs to aid identification. The soldiers approach their target in the manner of an ambush, making no attempt to warn or arrest. They fire at close range, aiming above the waist, usually at the head, and without issuing a warning shot, contrary to Israeli standing orders for opening fire. In some cases when the victim is wounded and lying on the ground, undercover soldiers have approached and fired again, killing the victim at close range, or have beaten the victim until death. Military backup units often arrive quickly on the scene (and may have been waiting in the area, sometimes with a ready military ambulances) and prevent nearby Palestinians from approaching or aiding the victim.

Military authorities claim responsibility for the killing in announcements to the press. Their version of events usually differs significantly from eyewitness accounts. Typically the victim is said to have been shot while fleeing, to have been a member of a military cell, or to have been engaged in “suspicious activity.” [4]

Sanitized Publicity

In response to a number of unfavorable reports on Israel’s use of the undercover units by both Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations, and by the major international press, foreign governments began to take notice. [5] Still, these units are extremely popular with the Israeli public. Given their first glimpse of undercover operations in a sanitized publicity tape shown on Israeli television in June 1991, the number of new applicants now exceeds that of any other elite unit. Half of the new recruits are said to be kibbutzniks, from liberal political backgrounds. [6] Shamir and Arens boast that the units, while unorthodox, are highly successful, as measured by the several score of Palestinians arrested or terrorized into surrendering to military authorities in the wake of well-publicized, bold executions. [7] Rabin praised the units in the Knesset. [8]

In the only known court case involving an undercover unit, a lieutenant colonel, the commander of the Gaza undercover units which operate under the code name “Shimshon” (Samson), was cleared of manslaughter charges but convicted on July 3, 1992 by a Tel Aviv military court of “negligence” in the 1989 killing of a Burayj refugee camp resident. [9] He was given a one-month suspended sentence on July 7 for ordering the “aiming and shooting at the middle of the suspect’s body” as the fourth stage of an arrest procedure, replacing orders to shoot only at suspects’ legs. A lieutenant is accused of wrongfully executing the illegal order.

The operations of the West Bank unit, code-named “Duvdovan” (Cherry), also captured headlines recently. Even death squad advocates were shocked when the undercover soldiers’ zeal resulted in the death of an Israeli soldier when one unit dressed in Arab disguise fired on another. The incident occurred July 8 near the Palestinian village of Barta along the West Bank-Israeli border in the Jenin district, where undercover soldiers have concentrated their activities. [10] Three weeks later an internal army report concluded that organizational procedures and discipline in the “Duvdovan” units needed to be reviewed, although Gen. Moshe Givati, who prepared the report, praised the units themselves for “influencing the Arab population.” [11]

Not well investigated by Israel are cases in which the undercover units’ victims are, in fact, Palestinians. Three human rights organizations — the Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC), al-Haq and B’tselem — each dispute military claims that soldiers only shoot in self-defense. [12] Their remarkably complementary studies, based on independent field investigations and eyewitness affidavits, concluded that real events differed markedly from accounts given to the press by the Israeli military spokesperson, and that an apparent policy of liquidating “wanted” Palestinians exists.

Victims were found to have been shot without warning in the upper parts of their body, at close range, and with an excessive number of bullets. Even according to the military’s version of events, most were not armed; any who had a weapon had not drawn it before being shot. PHRIC noted that in seven out of 29 cases of killings by undercover units in 1991, Palestinians were shot again or beaten to death while lying wounded on the ground, others were denied medical treatment and died in custody. [13]

Al-Haq drew attention to the fact that undercover killings were not the exception but the rule, encouraged by a relaxation in the army’s open-fire orders. [14] B’tselem concentrated on the Israeli military’s argument of self-defense, attacking the military establishment for providing “cover-up and backup” for shooting Palestinians who were not threatening the lives of soldiers. [15] They identified five cases of persons apparently killed by mistake.

Rabin’s government coalition partner, Meretz, is headed by Shulamit Aloni, who also leads Meretz’s main constituent group, the Citizens Rights Movement. The Movement has expressed concern about the activities of the undercover units. Rabin and the military appear to have two options if pressure to investigate the undercover units persists: to publicly disband the units and ignore covert assassinations, or to allow the undercover soldiers to don military uniforms and be reintegrated in the army or police. Uniformed soldiers have shown no less restraint in pulling the trigger. Rabin may already be pursuing a third option: to defend the units publicly while ordering some reforms in operational behavior.

The State Department, although it has acknowledged that 27 undercover killings occurred in 1991, has been reluctant to pursue an investigation of Israeli undercover activities. It has not publicly questioned the military’s claim of self-defense. On June 30, Edward Djerejian, assistant secretary of state for the Near East, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Europe and the Middle East that State was “looking closely” into “allegations” of abuses committed by the units and was “discussing the matter with the Israelis.” [16]

Meanwhile, killings by undercover units continue. On Rabin’s first day in office, July 12, a group of Israeli soldiers dressed as Arabs joined a demonstration of Hamas activists in Gaza and opened fire, killing 20-year-old Rami Mazloum with two bullets in the back of the neck and injuring seven others. Israeli military sources first reported that Rami had been beaten to death by Palestinians, then admitted army responsibility after an autopsy showed he died of wounds caused by army-issue bullets.


[1] More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces using live ammunition, tear gas or beatings, or died for unknown reasons in detention during the four and a half years of the intifada. All but a handful of these killings were determined to be within Israel’s legal limits.
[2] On April 2, 1988, seven Israeli soldiers wearing civilian dress pulled up in an Arab van outside a Gaza butcher shop and tried to beat and pull a youth inside the van. The youth and his father and his uncle were shot dead in the scuffle that followed. Israel reported the killings as self-defense. (PHRIC documentation; Jerusalem Post, April 3, 1988.)
[3] Using press reports, B’tselem calculates that undercover units were responsible for 70 deaths during the intifada, through April 1992; PHRIC calculates 94 through its field investigations.
[4] Description from Targeting to Kill: Israel’s Undercover Units (Jerusalem: PHRIC, 1992), pp. 2-3.
[5] See Human Rights Watch, World Report 1991 (New York, 1992); Amnesty International Focus (London, January 1990); PHRIC, Targeting to Kill; al-Haq, Human Rights Focus: Killings by Undercover and Uniformed Security Forces Increase (Ramallah, May 12, 1992); Na’ama Yashuvi, Activity of the Undercover Units in the Occupied Territories (Jerusalem: B’tselem, May 1992).
[6] Hadashot, August 14, 1992.
[7] New York Times, April 12, 1992.
[8] Maariv, July 30, 1992.
[9] Jerusalem Post, July 3 and 8, 1992.
[10] Jerusalem Post, July 10, 1992; Israeli military radio, July 10, 1992.
[11] Haaretz, July 30, 1992.
[12] See note 5.
[13] PHRIC, pp. 40-43.
[14] Al-Haq, pp. 2-5.
[15] B’tselem, pp. 78-79.
[16] Private communication from Churches for Middle East Peace, June 30, 1992.

How to cite this article:

Anita Vitullo Khoury "Yitzhak Rabin and Israel’s Death Squads," Middle East Report 178 (September/October 1992).

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