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Correspondent Friday, 15 February, 2002, 19:41 GMT
Israel undercover
Sayeret Golani commando unit
Sayeret Golani commando unit about to break into a house of a Palestinian suspect in the West Bank
Given rare access to the Israeli military machine, Correspondent follows two Israeli commando units taking part in snatch and ambush missions deep in the heart of Palestinian territory and reveals the criteria by which the Israeli military decide when to try to take someone alive - and when and how to kill them. John Kampfner reports.

Click here for transcripts

Another night, another raid deep inside enemy territory.

It is 0200 in the back streets of a small town in the West Bank. A team of commandos, armed with semi automatics and grenades, jump out and take up positions around a white washed house.

Sayeret Golani
Sayeret Golani head toward their target in the West Bank

The commander, Mordechai, has cover from his men. He rings the buzzer. "Come and open the door immediately," his second in command shouts in Arabic. "Your house will be destroyed if you don't open the door."

We are with Sayeret Golani, the elite of Israel's elite forces. They have been given a particular mission - to snatch Nasser Zakarna, a Hamas operative who has already served three terms in Israeli jails.

He is wanted alive for interrogation. Intelligence reports say Zakarna would be at home that night, armed. Women and children would be with him.

Ticking bombs

"The people we are after are ticking bombs. We don't stop until we get them," says Colonel "Chico", the commander of the Golani brigade.

"We prefer, or we are forced, to kill someone only when four conditions are met," says Major General Gyora Eiland, head of military planning of the Israeli Defence Force. He reveals a list that sets out criteria for assassinations.

"Number one: when there is no way to arrest someone. Number two: when the target is important enough. Number three: we do it when we believe that we can guarantee very few civilian casualties. And number four: we do it when we believe that there is no way that we can delay or postpone this operation."
Israel bomb
The aim is to capture the next "ticking bomb" before it strikes

Often it's a matter of only a few miles and a few hours between the terrorist cell - the engineer, organiser, suicide bomber - and the targeted Israeli town. This is what the Israelis call the ticking bomb.

Eighteen months into the second intifada, Israel's armed forces are locked in the psychology of permanent combat. This is the dilemma - do military operations slow down the cycle of violence or just cause more bloodshed? The army commanders are not thinking in these terms. For the moment, it is a matter only of getting to the next ticking bomb.

Who lives and who dies?

The inner workings and tactics of Israel's military machine have until now been a closely guarded secret. How do they gather intelligence? Who do they identify as targets? When and how do they go for them? And, crucially, how do they determine when to arrest - and when to kill?

Intelligence is the most important tool in this Intifada

Gidon Ezra

"Intelligence is the most important tool in this Intifada," says Gidon Ezra, former number two in Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency. He gives us the example of one particular terrorist suspect.

"You have to know where he will be, away from other people, to be able to arrest him. Then you understand you can't arrest him, you can't reach him because he lives in the middle of Bethlehem. So you decide to kill him."

The planning is meticulous. "You have this information that he has got pigeons he has to feed. Now he goes to feed his pigeons. A helicopter hits him and kills him."

Methods of murder

The Israelis have several ways of isolating and taking out Palestinian targets. Ambush, as a method, works when the enemy is within a soldier's shooting range.

But many Palestinian fighters are harder to reach. This leaves assaults from the air - either from F16 fighter jets or Apache combat helicopters - which are by far the most controversial means of attack.

Apache helicopters
Israeli air force Apache helicopter

The helicopter pilots are trained to 'detach' themselves emotionally from their targets. One tells us that as a matter of course, even the most experienced were given information about targets on a need-to-know basis.

"We don't know who is the target or what the target is," says Hagai, a deputy squadron leader. "We get only the coordinates." Concern over human rights prosecutions in international courts is weighing heavily.

Raiding the West Bank

Israeli intelligence has information that the terrorist, Nasser Zakarna, has been using his house in Qabatiya as a weapons factory. The arms cache is then moved to a different location.

After days of training and classroom briefings, the commandoes of Sayeret Golani are ready. Every last detail has been practised. The unit has even used a cardboard model of Zakarna's house, detailing every room.

Commander Mordechai
Commander Mordechai outside the target's door

As they reach the narrow winding streets they follow the drill. They ring the bell, once, twice. They whisper into each other's radios. Mordechai, the commander, gives the order to fire on the door, using a short-range shotgun to break through. The dog they bring with them starts yelping.

They are shot at from a neighbouring house. Pinned against the white concrete wall at the front of the house, they return fire. Mordechai instructs his explosives expert to blow the door.

It is at this point that Zakarna decides to bring his family out.

A textbook operation

The women and children file out, their faces a mixture of dread and contempt. The men are ordered to kneel down on the pavement. Hands are tied. The house is searched for weapons.

Sayeret Golani
Sayeret Golani deliver their captives to prison for interrogation

Zakarna and two brothers are led into the jeeps. The women are ordered back inside. The soldiers shut them back inside. Zakarna is taken to an Israeli prison. His brothers are later released.

On one level, this was a textbook operation in a very difficult location. Who knows? Perhaps this averted another suicide bombing. But what, we ask Chico, about the one after, and the one after that?

This is the question the Israeli army chiefs cannot seem to answer. At what point will they ever believe their work is done? "I hope for an end, but to give you a practical answer, I don't think in the near future we will see a happy end," Chico says. "I think for the time being we are not ready for that."

The Dirty War: Israel undercover. Sunday 17 February 2002 at 19:15 on BBC Two

Producer/Director: Dominic Allan
Co-Producer: Israel Goldvicht
Executive Producer: Tom Roberts
Editor: Fiona Murch

John Kampfner
Israel uncovered
2nd Lieutenant Hagai
Sayeret Golani commandos
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Egoz commandos

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