Israeli police officers walk near a body, left, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteers collect victims’ blood and body parts for burial at the scene of one of two Palestinian suicide bombings on Jan. 5, 2003, in Tel Aviv. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Amir was a network intelligence officer, or NIO — a bright young man assigned to Unit 8200, one of the most prestigious outfits in the IDF. He worked, like all NIOs, at a base protected by reinforced concrete, monitoring information. Soldiers like Amir had to decide, for example, whether the speaker in an intercepted conversation was a storekeeper ordering merchandise or a jihadi delivering coded instructions to prepare a bomb. If he made a mistake, innocent people — Israelis on one side, a hapless shop owner on the other — could die.
Officially, Amir and his colleagues at Unit 8200’s Turban base were responsible for stopping terrorist attacks. Unofficially, they were deciding whom Israel killed.
Often, Unit 8200 also picked out buildings to bomb. The bombings were a way to send a message to the Palestinians but also simply a way for Israel’s leaders and soldiers to express their frustration and anger.
On Jan. 5, 2003, two suicide bombers from Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades slipped into Tel Aviv and made their way toward the old central bus station. At 6:26 p.m., they blew themselves up near downtown, killing 23 people. Many were babies or children. The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and promised to make every effort to apprehend the men who had planned it. The Israelis were not convinced. After all, the bombers came from an organization affiliated with Fatah, which was under Yasser Arafat’s command.
Following that meeting, less than three hours after the attack, the then IDF chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, decided to bomb Target 7068, the code name for the Fatah branch office in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis. Unlike in the past, this time there would be no warning, and the attack would not come at night.
According to the intelligence available to Unit 8200, the office had no connection to terrorist activities. No activity connected to terrorism took place there, according to Amir, just office work and paying out welfare and salaries. “It was the Gaza Strip equivalent of a labor union local,” Amir said.
Early the next morning, Amir, who assumed the operation would be just another symbolic strike on an empty building, told military intelligence that no one was in the building and that it was safe to start the bombardment. “It’s on hold,” he was told by a representative of the Targets Department. “They’re waiting for the office to open.”
“What? Who are they expecting?” he asked.
“No one. It’s not a particular person; just anyone. Let us know when someone goes inside.”
He thought it was a misunderstanding. The presence of civilians in a building was a reason to stand down, not to strike. According to the IDF’s Code of Ethics, soldiers are required to “prevent unnecessary harm to human life and limb” and to “disavow manifestly illegal orders.” Bombing a building inhabited by people with no combat role — bureaucrats, cleaners, secretaries — flew in the face of that code and Finkelstein’s 2001 legal memo. Targeting civilians, in fact, was an outright war crime.
But there was no misunderstanding. The Targets Department issued a written order so that everyone understood that they were waiting for an “indication” that the building was occupied — in other words, a phone call. Amir’s unit was told not to wait for the speaker to identify himself or for a conversation of any value to take place. Put simply, the intention was simply to kill someone — anyone.
Amir raised the matter with the senior NIO and with the command of Unit 8200. The command said they “understood there was a problem,” and the operation was put on hold. “That satisfied me, and I could go back to my post, which I had closed down, at about 2 a.m., with the sense that the story was behind us.”
However, the next morning, when he sat down to work, he got a call from the Targets Department notifying him that the bombing of the Fatah branch in Khan Yunis was about to begin. Amir objected, but the officer on the other end of the line got angry.
“Why does it seem manifestly illegal to you? They’re all Arabs. They’re all terrorists.”
“In my unit,” Amir told him, “we make a very clear distinction between terrorists and those who were not involved, such as people who routinely used the target building.”
But by then the operation was already in motion. Two armed F-16 fighter jets were circling over the Mediterranean, waiting for the order. A drone was photographing the building from a distance. As soon as Amir told them someone was in the building, two Hellfire missiles would be launched. Amir decided he would refuse to cooperate.
Impatient calls started coming in to 8200 command from the air force and military intelligence. The operational order required the bombardment to be completed by 11:30 a.m., when children would be emptying into a nearby schoolyard. “This is a manifestly illegal order, and I do not intend to obey it,” Amir told them. “The fact that the commander has declared it to be legal doesn’t make it legal.”
A few minutes later, one of Amir’s soldiers told him that phone calls were being made inside the Fatah building. A man was dealing with wage payments, trying to get money to some employees, despite the hard times in the Palestinian Authority and the ongoing war. A secretary was gossiping about a local gigolo.
That was the go signal. The F-16 could fire. Israel could kill them both. Amir sat in his chair as the on-duty NIO. “A certain serenity came over me,” he recalled. “I felt that there was only one right thing to do. It was clear to me that this operation should not go forward, that it crossed a red line, that it was a manifestly illegal order … and that it was my responsibility, as a soldier and a human being, to refuse to carry it out.”
That evening, the 8200 command sent an urgent message to the head of military intelligence, expressing grave reservations about the operation. It was transmitted to the minister of defense, who ordered the cancellation of the attack.
This was a clear vindication of Amir’s moral stand, but it was too late to silence the storm that the “mutiny in 8200” had unleashed. Unit 8200’s command came under heavy fire from all sides of the defense establishment — even Prime Minister Sharon let it be known that he took a very dim view of what had transpired. The head of the unit, Brig. Gen. Yair Cohen, was summoned to an IDF General Staff meeting devoted entirely to Amir. He should face a court-martial, the officers argued, and go to jail for at least six months. One general went further: “That officer should have been convicted of treason and put in front of a firing squad.”
The military and intelligence establishments were concerned that Amir could be the first of many soldiers to refuse to carry out orders. From the commanders’ perspective, putting down a Palestinian uprising didn’t leave a lot of room for squishy liberal objectors.
Amir’s contention that what amounted to an order to murder civilians was manifestly illegal was rejected out of hand by the military. Professor Asa Kasher, a philosopher and the author of the IDF’s Code of Ethics, was invited by the commander of 8200 to discuss the issue. He believed that Amir’s actions were morally incorrect. “I could not under any circumstances endorse the act of the NIO,” Kasher said. “In the situation that prevailed there, when he was an NIO at a distant base, he lacked the moral authority to determine that the order was manifestly illegal.” Amir was quietly discharged without being indicted, preventing the courts from having an opportunity to determine whether the order to murder civilians had been legal.
The operation in Khan Yunis had clearly violated the guidelines set by the IDF military advocate general — that the target for elimination must be an individual directly linked to terrorism. But that wasn’t the only guideline that was now being breached regularly. There was one that called for an investigation each time innocent civilians were killed along with the target. Another dictated that there should be no killings when there was a “reasonable arrest alternative” — when the terrorist could be detained without endangering the lives of soldiers or civilians. Alon Kastiel, a soldier in the intelligence section of the Duvdevan, or “cherry,” unit (on which the popular Israeli TV series Fauda is based), told me: “Everything about my military service changed after the outbreak of the intifada. Before that, we made very great efforts to capture wanted men alive. After the outbreak, this modus operandi ended. It was clear that we were out to kill.”
By the summer of 2002, the Shin Bet and its partners were able to stop more than 80 percent of attacks before they turned deadly. The targeted killings were clearly saving lives. But there was a disturbing trend in the data, too: The number of attempted attacks was increasing. Rather than wearing down Hamas and other terrorist groups, the assassinations were spawning more and more attackers.
On Jan. 14, 2004, a 21-year-old woman from the Gaza Strip tried to enter into Israel at the Erez Crossing. She had to pass through a metal detector, like all Palestinians. There was a high, pinging beep when she went through the detector. “Platin, platin,” she told the border guards, pointing at her leg — a platinum implant. The guards sent her through again and then a third time. The detector kept beeping. A female guard was summoned to frisk her. She then detonated a bomb that killed four examiners and wounded 10 others.
The woman’s name was Reem Saleh Riyashi. She had two children, one 3 years old, the other only 18 months. A day later, Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin called a press conference at the home of one of his followers. He sat in his wheelchair, wrapped in a brown blanket. He was smiling. “For the first time,” he said, “we have used a woman fighter instead of a man. This is a new development in the struggle against the enemy.” The sheikh, who in the past had issued several fatwas (religious edicts) against the use of female suicide bombers, said he had changed his mind. “The holy war obligates all Muslims, men and women. This is proof that the resistance will continue until the enemy is driven out of our homeland.” It was enough for the Israeli government to put Yassin on the target list.
In public appearances, Ariel Sharon also dropped hints that he now saw Yassin as a target. This only led to a tightening of the security around the Hamas leader. He stayed indoors, emerging only to visit a local mosque and his sister’s home, both of which were near his house. He moved between the three points in two vans, one equipped with a lift for Yassin’s wheelchair and a second for his armed bodyguards. His life was confined to this triangle, and he and his underlings assumed that Israel wouldn’t dare strike at any of its vertices — each of which was crowded with women, children, and innocent civilians.
But there were spaces in between those three points. On the evening of March 21, Yassin was driven to prayers at the mosque, with his bodyguards following in their van.
Shaul Mofaz, now defense minister, ordered that both vehicles be destroyed on their way back. There were choppers in the air and drones buzzing overhead, and Yassin’s son, Abdul Hamid, had been around long enough to sense the danger. He raced to the mosque.
“Father, do not leave here,” he warned. “They will not attack a mosque.”
The sheikh and his bodyguards decided to be cautious and remained in the mosque.
Hours went by. After the dawn prayers, Yassin wanted to go home. “Helicopters could not be heard above,” his son said. “Everyone was sure the danger had passed.”
The trackers were still there, of course, and the drones were still watching through thermal imaging cameras. People came out the front door, moving quickly past the parked vans, pushing a wheelchair.
Mofaz requested to speak to the Apache pilot, asking him if he could clearly see the wheelchair and whether he could hit it.
“I see them very clearly,” the pilot said. “I can take them out.”
On the video feed, there was a flash and then a fraction of a second of blank screen. Then parts of the wheelchair flew in all directions, one wheel soaring upward and landing outside the frame, and people lying or crawling on the ground.