Two terrorists less?

Posted: Aug 04, 2001 12:00 AM
On one day, the papers ran an obituary on an American flier who in 1943 shot down the plane carrying Adm. Yamamoto from a Japanese base in Rabaul, New Britain. There was jubilation in America over that nice coordination of intelligence and warmaking, and I remember the special glee of a 15-year-old who had quivered with indignation when the Japanese admiral a year or two earlier had broadcast that he looked forward to dictating the terms of surrender to the Americans in Washington, D.C.

On the same day there was news of the Israeli helicopter attack on Nablus in the West Bank. The targets were two leaders of the Hamas, and they were killed, as also four others and two boys walking past the building when the helicopters struck.

The perspectives by which the two episodes are judged have to do with civil protocols. We were at war with Japan, which meant that anything we proceeded to do, including bombing civilian centers, was OK. If we elected not to bomb the emperor, that was because we thought him more valuable alive than dead. If there was a scruple on this matter, it was of the kind felt by heads of state. When we commissioned the assassination of Fidel Castro, in the Bobby Kennedy days, word got around that reciprocity was conceivable, and for a few hot hours after the shots fired out in Dealey Plaza, some suspected that the killer Oswald was doing the work of Fidel Castro, repaying the compliments of (failed) U.S.-led assassins.

That situation has cooled off, but hardly that of Israel and the Palestinians. But of course they are not "at war" with one another, so that the protocols do not fall quite in place when a helicopter attack singles out two Hamas leaders and incidentally kills a few others while at it. The reactions were absolutely predictable at one end: The Palestinians are enraged and threaten retaliation.

Every now and then, after a sortie of this kind, the Israelis clam up. But not this time. The office of Prime Minister Sharon issued a statement: The doomed Hamas figures "were in the process of planning further terrorist acts." The helicopter attack was therefore pre-emptive. Palestinians have denied complicity in terrorism. "Jamal Mansour was arrested by the Israelis more than 13 times," one spokesman said. "They deported him to Lebanon once. That should have been enough for the Israelis to know who Jamal Mansour was. If he was Hamas military, they never would have released him."

Are these stipulations, all the way around? The Israelis charge that the victims were planning terrorist attacks; the Palestinians deny that they were terrorist-bound? If so, analysts from the outside are left to weigh the probabilities, which are that Israeli intelligence was accurate, and that Mansour and his confederate Jamal Salim were indeed involved in the terrorist Palestinian cause, even if one wonders why Israelis didn't hang on to Mansour when they had their hands on him.

The only thing absolutely settled by the Israeli strike is the future of Mansour and Salim. The Israelis can always hope that they have got rid of two critical members of the terrorist operation. This is unlikely, any more than, after a while, we could sustain a reasonable hope that bringing in the marginal Vietcong operative would collapse the communist effort in South Vietnam. Working for the Israelis is the counterterrorist's ultimate card: We know who you are, Abdul, and one of our people will visit you in due course, so say your prayers. The Palestinians have to hope that their own terrorism will one day effectively demoralize the enemy, usher in a Quisling government, and result in the gradual disappearance of Israel as we know it today.

The U.S. government, which prefers to stay away from day-by-day moralizing on the Mideast 100-year war, did reproach the Israelis this time around, and the European press, as ever, was all but unanimously critical. The Israeli killer operation is explained by two standards. One says, Like capital punishment, such treatment of terrorists may deter. A second says, We derive satisfaction from executing such as were directly or indirectly involved in the terrorist operation in Tel Aviv last June that killed 22 of our citizens.

It is left for private speculation what it is that keeps Arafat alive, beyond the seamless protective domes characteristically lived in by despots. Perhaps the Israelis bow to Machiavelli's doctrine that one should not cut off the enemy's line of retreat. On the other hand, if Arafat were to retreat, the assassin would probably be a kinsman.