JERUSALEM, Jan. 7 -- To Israeli peace activists, Thabet Thabet was a familiar figure. He had long been active in trying to foster reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. A few years ago, in a rare act for a Palestinian, he even attended the funeral of an Israeli soldier, the son of a veteran peace campaigner he had befriended.
But to the Israeli military, Thabet was a senior local leader of Yasser Arafat's Fatah political faction and was involved in plotting attacks against Israelis in the Tulkarm area of the West Bank where he lived. In their view, the middle-aged dentist was a dangerous terrorist and so, witnesses said, a crack team of soldiers using long-range machine guns assassinated him with surgical precision as he was leaving his home on New Year's Eve.
Thabet was apparently the latest victim of Israel's policy of systematically targeting and killing Palestinians deemed to be security threats -- a policy now being confirmed by the government, which has not denied involvement in Thabet's slaying. There is no accurate count, as the military and government rarely admit to specific killings. Some Israeli peace activists say there have been eight or nine such "hits," but Palestinians and other sources say the number is more than 20, and possibly as high as 30.
Some have been killed by air-to-surface rockets launched from Israeli helicopters, such as Hussein Abayat, a Palestinian militia leader in the town of Beit Sahur, just outside Bethlehem, who died along with a colleague on Nov. 9 when a missile was fired into his four-door pickup truck on a narrow dirt road.
Samih Malabi, a Fatah activist from the Kalandia refugee camp outside Ramallah, was killed when a booby-trapped mobile phone exploded next to his head. Israeli army officials denied carrying out that attack. But Palestinians list his death as another in a string of assassinations -- and the method mirrors the way Israelis killed a chief Palestinian bomb maker known a! s "The Engineer" in 1996.
Some Palestinian leaders have been sprayed with gunfire as they approached Israeli checkpoints, others have been hunted down and assassinated near their homes.
And after two months of coy nondenials -- Barak has pointedly refused to deny Israeli involvement in Thabet's killing -- officials are now admitting the practice of targeted assassinations, both publicly and to members of the Knesset. And they are promising to conduct more.
"I can tell you unequivocally what the policy is," Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defense minister, said in an interview with Israel Radio last week. "If anyone has committed or is planning to carry out terrorist attacks, he has to be hit. . . . It is effective, precise and just."
Members of the Knesset said Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted during a recent meeting of the foreign affairs and defense committee that the government was conducting the assassinations, even as some members pressed him to stop the policy.
"It's got to stop immediately, very simply put, for three reasons," said Naomi Chazan, a member of the leftist Meretz party. "It's totally illegal according to any international criteria or law. Number two, it's immoral. And number three, because it's stupid. . . . It's really a totally untenable and unacceptable policy."
"We told that to the prime minister," she said. "He disagreed."
Chazan said many left-wing Israeli activists were particularly angered by Thabet's assassination. "He's somebody we knew quite well."
Israel has always had a policy of selectively assassinating known terrorists. But this new policy casts a far wider net, targeting not just people engaged in terrorism, but those who coordinate it or direct others. The policy appears to be partly a response to criticism of the army and government for their initial handling of the Palestinian uprising when soldiers killed perceived troublemakers among the crowds of stone-throwers. More than 360 people have been k! illed since the uprising began Sept. 29, most of them Palestinians, many of them teenage boys, and some as young as 10.
The deaths of so many youths produced some of the most painful and enduring images of the uprising, and created a public relations disaster for Israel. The U.N. Security Council criticized Israel for using excessive force.
In response to specific terrorist attacks, like the bombing of an Israeli school bus in Gaza in November, the military had a more general retaliation. It has used helicopter missiles to blast the infrastructure of Arafat's Palestinian Authority -- police stations, political party headquarters and radio transmitters. But that was seen as ineffective, because the facilities had usually been evacuated long before they were struck.
Palestinians have threatened revenge after each assassination. For weeks they have been firing on Jewish settlers driving often-deserted roads of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Binyamin Kahane, the U.S.-born son of the extremist anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane, was fatally shot on a West Bank road hours before Thabet was killed. The Palestinian Authority also has started arresting Palestinians suspected of helping Israel find targets.
Abdul Jawad Saleh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, called the Israeli assassination policy "an inhuman violation and contravention of human rights and the Geneva convention. These are extrajudicial executions. It's frightening from the aspect that no one is protected from these assassinations. It's disgusting."
He added: "There are rules of the game, and if you violate them, you are opening a Pandora's box. It's very easy to start killing Israeli leaders."
Some Israelis also are openly criticizing the assassination policy.
"It's quite clear to me that this is completely criminal," said Moshe Negbi, a journalist and commentator. "It's a crime under international law, and it's a crime under Israeli law. I think everybody involved -- the officers who give this command and the soldiers who carry it out -- are committing murder."
Amiram Goldblum, a chemistry professor and activist with the group Peace Now, said the policy of targeted assassination is a direct result of right-wing public pressure for the army to take a harder line, but without civilian casualties. In the case of people like Thabet -- whom the government accused of plotting attacks -- Goldblum said: "If there is evidence against him, take him and bring him to trial instead of using these Mafia-style actions."
Another Peace Now activist, Yehudit Harel, said she had known Thabet since 1988, when they began organizing peace activities, including dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians. He helped found the Palestinian Committee for Understanding and Reconciliation with the Israeli People, and held many of the sessions at his home. In 1994, when Harel's son, a soldier, was killed in a car accident, Thabet went to the funeral. "It wasn't easy for him to come to a military cemetery," Harel said.
"It's immoral, and it's not suitable for a society that claims to be a democracy," Harel said of the targeted killings.