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From the field

Activity of Undercover Units in the Occupied Territories

May 1992, Summary


Since October 1988, numerous reports have been published about the existence of undercover units that operate in the territories for all intents and purposes as liquidation squads. The reports were repeatedly denied by security soruces until the units were exposed in an Israeli television report by Mordechai Kirshenbaum. That report defined the units' mission: "to apprehend wanted Palestinians from the hard core of the Intifada, those with blood on their hands." In the recent months prior to May 1992, the IDF was employing a new policy against these wanted persons, described by the OC Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Dani Yatom, in media interviews, as an "offensive policy." The practical result of this policy has been, first and foremost, the capture of hundreds of wanted Palestinians, and the killing of at least ten, in the first four months of 1992, most of them by the undercover untis. According to B'Tselem's data, some seventy residents of the territories were killed by the undercover units betwen the start of the Intifada and the end of April 1992. An analysis of the cases shows that many of those killed were hit by more than one bullet, and usually in the upper part of the body. It is our assessment that in a large percentage of the cases, it was possible to apprehend the suspects without killing them.

Various military sources have denied the existence of a policy of "liquidating wanted persons," but the testimonies collected by B'tselem indicate that even if there is no official policy that permits such killing, in practice the phenomenon exists.

The following conclusions emerge from the report: The soldiers in the special units are equipped with live ammunition only. In many cases, no serious attempt is made to stop the persons killed, or to employ less severe measures (plastic and rubber bullets, tear gas, etc.) before the shooting which causes their death. Many of those killed were shot from close range, an dhit in their upper body. In many of the cases, the person killed was hit by a large number of bullets. In four of the ten cases resented in the report, it was claimed that the soldiers aimed their weapons at the feet of the suspect, but hit him in the body (Tamun - August 1988, Ramallah - July 1989, Tulkarm - March 1992, and Sa'ir - May 1992). (In the case of Sa'ir, the suspect was shot in the head.) B'Tselem knows of 5 cases of persons killed apparently by mistake. The percentage of persons killed who were armed when they clashed with the undercover units has risen in recent months, and from January to April 1992, reached 50%. Still, fifty-percent of those killed are unarmed.

Various military sources denied the existence of a policy of "liquidating wanted persons," but the testimonies collected by B'Tselem indicate that even if there was no official policy that permitted such killing, in practice the phenomenon existed. This report illustrates how the methods of operation employed by the special units, on the one hand, and the message transmitted to the soldiers by the entire military system, on the other, caused so very many deviations from the declared policy.

The first part of the report describes briefly the methods of operation of the special units, and the instructions for opening fire in the IDF in general and in the undercover units in particular. A comprehensive legal analysis of the subject is also presented.

The legal section of the report reviews the relevant court decisions, and elucidates the restrictions stipulated by the Supreme Court regarding use of the "self-defense" claim, and the criteria for apprehending a suspect and shooting during the procedure for apprehending a suspect. In addition, the section reviews the prohibitions in international law against killing without a trial, and against the inordinate use of force by those vested with enforcing the law. "Self-defense" applies only in a situation in which a person is defending himself from attack, and on condition that the action was intended to ward off an attack, and was reasonable in order to prevent harm. "Self-defense" does not justify an action directed at a future danger, but rather, only an action necessary to ward of an attack actually occurring. Force may not be used prior to attack, or after the danger has passed.

Even if there is no policy of "eliminating" wanted eprsons, the report indicates an atmosphere which justifies fatal shooting by undercover units in general, and shooting at wanted persons in particular, including circumstances which do not justify "self-defense," as defined in the ruling. In the zeal to capture wanted persons, deviations from the official orders are understood as an unavoidable necessity.

The message passed on to soldiers in the "oral tradition" which has grown up around the written orders, is that even if the killing of wanted persons is not a goal in and of itself, it is not viewed as wrong. This message is as immoral as it is illegal. In the State of Israel, as in all properly functioning countries, only a court is authorized to impose a death sentence on a person, after he has been lawfully tried and convicted. The charges against wanted persons, no matter how grave, do not justify aberrations from this principle. The legal and defnese establishments bear the responsibility of elucidating this to those who operate in the territories on their behalf, and of preventing all unjustified killing.