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On martyrdom and the limited horizon of generals

On martyrdom and the limited horizon of generals

[In the following you read how Uri Avnery places the assassination of Sheikh Yassin in context, and in the four forwarded articles of the Israeli-Palestinian email magazine Bitter Lemons (Assassinations and the conflict - Ed.12) you find the subject approached from several significant angles.]

# Avnery on martyrdom and the limited horizon of generals # Back to an existential fight - Ghassan Khatib # Bankruptcy - Yossi Alpher # Yassin and the camp of death - Eyad el Sarraj # Targeted killings: a retro fashion - Yossi Melman

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# Avnery on martyrdom and the limited horizon of generals

Uri Avnery 27.3.04

òáøéú áàúø / Hebrew on the website

Three Generals, One Martyr

Five hundred black- and white-bearded Hamas members were sitting opposite me. Venerable sheikhs and young people. On the side, some rows were occupied by women. I was standing on the stage, talking in Hebrew, with the crossed flags of Israel and Palestine on my lapel.

As I have recounted already several times, it happened like this: at the end of 1992, the new Prime Minister, Yitzhaq Rabin, expelled 415 Islamic activists - mostly Hamas members - to the Lebanese border area. In protest, we put up tents opposite the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. There we spent 45 days and nights - Israeli peace activists (who were later to found Gush Shalom) and Arab citizens of Israel, mostly members of the Islamic movement. Most of the time it was very cold, and some days our tents were covered with snow. There was a lot of debate in the tents, the Jews learning something about Islam and the Muslims something about Judaism.

The expelled militants themselves vegetated for a year in the hilly landscape, between the Israeli and Lebanese armies. The whole world followed their suffering. After a year they were allowed back, and the Hamas leaders in Gaza organized a homecoming reception for them in the biggest hall in town. They invited those Israelis who had protested against the expulsion. I was asked to make a speech. I spoke about peace, and in the intermission we were invited to have lunch with the hosts. I was impressed by the friendly attitude of the hundreds of people who were there.

Undoubtedly, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and the spokesman of the expellees, Dr. Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantissi (who became Sheikh Yassin's successor last week) would have been present, too, if they had not been kept in prison.

I recount this experience in order to point out that the picture of Hamas as an inveterate enemy of all peace and compromise is not accurate. Of course, 10 years of bloodshed, suicide bombings and targeted assassinations have passed since then. But even now, the picture is much more complex than meets the eye.

There are different tendencies in Hamas. The ideological hard core does indeed refuse any peace or compromise with Israel. They consider it a foreign implantation in Palestine, which in Islamic doctrine is a Muslim "wakf" (religious grant). But many Hamas sympathizers do not treat the organization as an ideological center but rather as an instrument for fighting Israel in pursuit of realistic objectives.

Sheikh Yassin himself announced some months ago in a German paper that the fight would be discontinued after the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Recently, he offered a "hudna" (truce) for 30 years. (Which strongly reminds one of Ariel Sharon's suggestion that Israel would give up the Gaza Strip and retain large parts of the West Bank for an interim phase to last for 20 years.) Therefore, the murder of the Sheikh did not serve any positive aim. It was an act of folly.

The three generals who actually direct the affairs of Israel - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Minister of Defense Sha'ul Mofaz and Chief- of-Staff Mosh Ya'alon - maintain that "in the short run" the assassination would indeed increase the attacks on Israeli citizens, but "in the long run" it would help to "rout terrorism". They are very careful not to spell out when the "short run" ends and the "long run" begins. Our generals do not believe in timetables.

I take the liberty to tell these three illustrious strategists: Nonsense in tomato juice! (as you say in Hebrew slang). Or rather, nonsense in blood.

In the short run, this action endangers our personal security; in the long run it represents an even greater danger to our national security.

In the short run, it has increased the motivation for Hamas to carry out deadly attacks. Every Israeli understands this and is taking extra precautions these days. But the less obvious results are much more threatening.

In the hearts of hundreds of thousands of children in the Palestinian territories and the Arab countries, this murder has raised a storm of rage and thirst for revenge, together with feelings of frustration and humiliation in view of the impotence of the Arab world.

This will produce not only thousands of new potential suicide bombers inside the country, but also tens of thousands of volunteers for the radical Islamic organizations throughout the Arab world. (I know, because at the age of 15 I joined the armed underground in similar circumstances.)

There is no stronger weapon for a fighting organization than a martyr. Suffice it to mention Avraham Stern, alias Ya'ir, who was killed by the British police in Tel-Aviv in 1942. His blood gave an impulse to the emergence of the Lehi underground (nicknamed "the Stern gang") which only four years later was playing a major role in the expulsion of the British from Palestine.

But Ya'ir's standing was nothing compared to the standing of Sheikh Yassin. The man was practically born to fulfil the role of a sainted martyr: a religious personality, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, broken in body but not in spirit, a militant who spent years in prison, a leader who continued his fight after miraculously surviving an earlier assassination attempt, a hero cowardly murdered from the air while leaving the mosque after prayer. Even a writer of genius could not have invented a figure more suited to the adoration of a billion Muslims, in this and coming generations.

The murder of Yassin will encourage cooperation among the Palestinian fighting organizations. Here, too, a parallel with the Hebrew underground presents itself. In a certain phase of the fight against the British, there was much unrest among the members of the Hagana, the semi- official underground army of the Zionist leadership (comparable to Fatah today). The Hagana (which included the elite Palmakh formation) was seen to be inactive, while the Irgun and Lehi appeared as heroes who carried out incredibly audacious actions. The ferment inside the Hagana caused the emergence of a group called "Fighting Nation" which advocated close cooperation between the various organizations. A number of Hagana members simply went over to Lehi.

Now it is happening among the Palestinians. The lines between the various groups are becoming more and more blurred. Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade members cooperate with Hamas and Jihad, contrary to the orders of their political leadership, saying that "since we are killed together, let us fight together". This phenomenon is bound to grow and make the attacks more effective.

Hamas' popularity among the population is rising sky-high, together with its capability to carry out attacks. This does not mean that the Palestinian public accepts the aim of an Islamic state or that it has given up the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Even among Hamas members, many embrace this idea. But the admiration of the masses for the attackers and their actions reflects the conviction that the Israelis understand only the language of force, and that experience proves that without extreme violence the Palestinians will not achieve anything at all.

Unfortunately, there is no real evidence for the opposite. The truth is that the Palestinians have never achieved anything without resorting to violence. Therefore the petitions being signed these days by well- meaning Palestinian personalities, calling for an end to the armed struggle, will have no effect. They cannot point to any other method that will sound convincing to their public. And our government always, without exception, presents such moves as a sign of weakness.

In the even longer run, the assassination of Yassin poses an existential danger. For five generations, the Israel-Palestinian conflict was essentially a national conflict - a clash between two great national movements, each of which claimed the country for itself. A national conflict is basically rational, it can be solved by compromise. This may be difficult, but it is possible. Our nightmare has always been that the national struggle would turn into a religious one. Since every religion claims to represent absolute truth, religious struggles do not allow for compromise.

The martyrdom of Sheikh Yassin pushes even further away the chance of Israel ever attaining peace and tranquility, normal relations with its neighbors, with a flourishing economy. It increases the danger that future generations of Arabs and Muslims will view it as a foreign implantation, installed in this region by force, with every decent Muslim, from Morocco to Indonesia, duty-bound to strive for its uprooting.

Such insights are far from the capability of our three generals to absorb. Sharon, Mofaz, Ya'alon and their ilk understand only brute force in the service of a narrow nationalism. Peace does not inspire them, for them compromise is a dirty word. It is quite clear that they will feel much more comfortable if the Palestinian people is led by fanatical religious fighters than by a man prepared to compromise like Yasser Arafat. ~~~

# Back to an existential fight - Ghassan Khatib A PALESTINIAN VIEW

Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian activists and leaders has now escalated to touch the very highest tiers of Palestinian leadership, supposedly in response to the provocation of Palestinian suicide bombings. This change marks a new wider shift in the tenor and very nature of the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict and confrontations.

While it is easy to view the killing of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin as part of the ongoing escalation of violence between the two sides, that view is also simplistic. One must explore the strategic roots of this ever- growing phenomenon, and that question must turn the focus on the Israeli government as the only variable that has changed since the breakdown in talks.

We now have a government in Israel that is responsible for transforming the nature of our struggle. Previously, Palestinians and Israelis were more or less in agreement over the guidelines to the solution--basically the two state solution as stipulated in the terms of reference of the peace process and international legality. The differences between the two sides were not minor, but they all were located in determining the details of this solution. For example, at the 2000 Camp David talks, agreement broke down over various details of how to implement two states: the percentage of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, the borders that would be drawn between the two states, which settlements would be dismantled, how to solve the refugee issue, how to divide Jerusalem, and so on.

Since then, a revolution has taken place. The peace camp in Israel is entirely marginalized and those groups that opposed the peace process are now in power. That opposition has capitalized on this new reality and succeeded in transferring the conflict and confrontations from a discussion over the details of creating two neighboring states to an existential conflict. This Israeli government has spent most of its energies trying to negate the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state by reoccupying the territories of the Palestini an Authority and gradually emasculating the Palestinian Authority itself. This new character of the conflict naturally brings new levels of confrontation. It is useful to re member that Israel tried the assassination policy on the Palestinian leadership in previous phases of the struggle, namely before the initiation of the peace process and at a time when the two sides had not yet decided to compromise, but were still trying to wipe each other out. The 1960s and 70s witnessed a great numb er of Israeli assassina tions of leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

But Israel did not learn its lesson. Those assassinations only succeeded in intensifying the confrontations and increasing determination among Palestinians to continue the fight. The same can be said for the current round of political eliminations. Assassinations strengthen Palestinian hostility, and consequently provide a backbone for the ongoing violence. But let us make no mistakes. Those Israelis who understand Palestinian political structures and aspirations also knew in advance the likely outcome of this assassination for the Palestinian balance of power. Therefore, if they were trying to systematically tilt this balance further against the Palestinian Authority, the peace camp, and the secular camp, then they have made no mistakes. –

Published 29/3/2004©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of and bitterlemons- He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst. ~~~~

# Bankruptcy - Yossi Alpher


A week after the assassination by Israel of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, it is easy to draw up a list of justifications for the act. It is equally easy to demonstrate that on balance the killing was a serious mistake, reflecting a dangerous absence of strategic wisdom on the part of its perpetrators. But this entire discussion of the assassination of a terrorist must not be allowed to obfuscate the more important basic fact that the assassinations reflect: none of the relevant leaders has a realistic strategy for peace, or even for ending the violence.

This targeted killing was justified because Sheikh Yassin was a major terrorist leader, and in the post 9/11 era there are no longer inhibitions about eliminating terrorist leaders. It was popular with the Israeli public because the public, legitimately, wants its terrorist tormentors to be punished. With Israel having announced its plan to leave the Gaza Strip, it was legitimate to expect that terrorism from and within Gaza would cease; when it did not, and when Hamas leaders, with Hezbollah's backing, escalated the terrorism (the Ashdod port attack), it made sense to launch a campaign to send a message of strength, and to diminish Hamas in favor of more moderate Palestinians, as part and parcel of the withdrawal plan. And while the murder of a quadri plegic political-religious figure in a wheelchair as he was leaving a mosque undoubtedly seems grot esque and cynical, it d oes send a deterrent message to Yassin's fellow religious terrorist leaders: witness the effect of the hu! miliating capture of Saddam Hussein on the likes of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. A previo us round of assassinati ons led Hamas to agree to a hudna or ceasefire.

There is also an obvious political angle--cynical, but real--to the Yassin killing. By this act, Pr ime Minister Ariel Sharon silenced the militant critics of his disengagement plan within the Likud, and seemingly enhanced his "irreplaceable" status in anticipation of a possible criminal indictment. Some would add that there is an international angle, too--one that refers to the global war on terrorism: the election of the Zapatero governm ent in Spain, with its platform of withdrawing from Iraq on the heels of the Qaeda attacks in Madri d, ostensibly sealed Yassin's fate, in the sense that a strong and aggressive anti-terrorist messag e was called for to cou nter the impression of appeasement emanating from Spain.

All these arguments and more can be mustered to justify the Yassin assassination. Yet it remains an act of futility, if not stupidity. While it may reduce Hamas' capabilities by striking at one lead er and forcing others t o go deep underground, it does not deter; on the contrary, it only increases the motivation of both the lower ranks and the leadership to kill Israelis, now including Israeli political leaders. Whil e some moderate Arab le aders who fear militant Islam may secretly rejoice over Yassin's killing, they remain angry at Isra el and embarrassed by its actions. Jordan's King Abdullah, in particular, was compromised and weake ned in Arab eyes becaus e he had met with Sharon scarcely two days before the assassination. Plans for the end-March Tunis Arab summit to reinforce the commendable Saudi peace initiative of two years ago were scrapped (alo ng with the entire summ it) by compromised Arab moderates. Perhaps of most concern, Yassin's martyrdom is liable to incite the Ar! ab street to greater religious extremism and anti-Americanism, far from the borders of Isra el.

After balancing out the pros and cons of this assassination, and in general of the policy of assass inating the political leadership of anti-Israeli terrorist organizations, the bottom line points to the strategic bankrupt cy not just of Israel, but of all the relevant parties. Israel and the Palestinians appear to be ca pable of responding only to violence. It is difficult in logical terms to support the convoluted cl aim that we are softeni ng up Gaza in March 2004 in anticipation of a justified withdrawal that is sponsored by a lame duck prime minister for all the wrong reasons (e.g., holding onto the West Bank) and which, if it happe ns, is scheduled for th e summer of 2005. The seemingly endless succession of empty slogans emanating from the Israel Defen se Forces (IDF) leadership since this intifada began--"let the IDF win," "burn defeat into their co nsciousness," "Hamas is a strategic enemy" (what was it before, a tactical enemy?)--all reflect the lack of a strategy for endin! g the violence and winning the peace. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership, including that of Hamas, have even less of a claim to a realistic strategy: they started the current conflict, have suffered far more, and appear to have learned nothing, whereas Sharon is at least planning to disengage. And US President George W. Bush seems oblivious to the damage caused by our conflict to his program of "freedom and democracy" in the Middle East. If only Sharon at least had a realistic strategy for peace, assassinations might not be necessary. Certainly they would be far more justified. -Published 29/3/2004© Yossi Alpher is coeditor of and bitterlemons- He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak. ~~~

# Yassin and the camp of death - Eyad el Sarraj A PALESTINIAN VIEW

I was apprehensive all night as the TV satellite reception was dysfunctional, a usual sign of Israeli spy drones invading our skies when they are on their way to prepare a kill.

At 5:20 am, I was awakened by the thundering noise of the low flying F16, another sign of the Israelis closing in on a target. Five minutes later I heard a distant explosion and the local Palestinian TV station, the only available source of news, announced the assassination of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.

Immediately, Gaza was sealed off by the Israel Defense Forces, as was the West Bank--a prison locked. The skies filled with dark clouds of smoke as burning tires suddenly appeared in every corner. Tens of thousands gathered in the streets demanding revenge as the funeral procession of Yassin made its way to the cemetery. Gaza had never been this way before. Every man and woman was shaken with apprehension of what will come next. The killing of Yassin was not surprising. Israeli officials recently declared that everyone, including the leaders of militant groups, is a legitimate target. It was obvious that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was incensed by the suicide bombing in Ashdod, not only because a number of Israelis were killed, but because it proved that infiltration inside Israel remains possible in defiance of the notorious wall Israel has constructed and all of its other security measures.

Indeed, this whole story can be viewed as another form of the tribal revenge and retaliation that h as continued for more than three years. Politicians and commentators are declaring that Sharon is m ad and that by killing Yassin, he is throwing the whole area, if not the world, into chaos. But I don't think Sharon is ma d or acting in retaliation. He has a plan, and it is working.

Sharon has succeeded in turning the clock back, destroying the Oslo agreement and the Palestinian A uthority as a partner. Sharon has decided that peace is a mortal danger to Israel because it entail s giving up the land in the West Bank. More seriously, Sharon is determined to kill the dream of the "loony left" of a bin ational state. He is ready to sacrifice even more Jews to stop it. Violation of international law i s unimportant and the n umber of Palestinians murdered is of no consequence. Yassin is just another number on Sharon's list ; there will be many to follow.

The killing of Yassin may well be one of the final nails in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority , after Sharon has meticulously carved it piece by piece into nothing. Not only intent on destroyin g the Authority, Sharon is all the more determined to kill any future partner--including Hamas. Interestingly, Yassin once accepted an end to the conflict, one that included a Palestinian state n ext to Israel, and thus abandoned the dream of an Islamic state in historic Palestine. His main tar get was to end the Isra eli occupation. It is important to remember that Hamas and all forms of resistance were born out of the Israeli occupation.

Last summer Yassin was instrumental in bringing to bear a unilateral ceasefire that held for nearly two months. Yassin was much-respected. His killing has elevated him to the level of sainthood, to a powerful model of mar tyrdom.

In the aftermath of Yassin's murder, Hamas could credibly strengthen its hold and assume the leader ship in Palestine as President Yasser Arafat's Authority has degenerated into a symbol of humiliati on and impotence. This was ingeniously executed by Sharon, helped--no doubt--by the Palestinian lack of leadership and vis ion, and at times assisted by blessings from the White House.

The killing of Sheikh Yassin in his wheelchair outside a mosque following the dawn prayer will not make Israel a safer place. It may temporarily offer Sharon safety in his position as he embarks on a new level of violence that will in turn make Hamas more popular and more militant and Israelis more frightened. Tragical ly, the logic of terror has played out very well for Sharon, while helping the Bush Corporation. Sh aron desperately needs a Palestinian retaliation that will strengthen his hand against his domestic foes.

But it may all go wrong for Sharon and Bush alike as the truth shockingly becomes more apparent, and were the new leadership of Hamas to consider a dramatic change of course. It is not an impossibility to imagine new Gaza Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi on the screen telling Israelis that he opposes more corpses and wants a just peace--telling them that, indeed, revenge is not his game.

In the killing of Yassin, only the death camp can rejoice. But this will be short-lived, as life always wins in the end. This is the lesson of history. -Published 29/3/2004© Dr. Eyad el Sarraj is the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP). ~~~

# Targeted killings: a retro fashion - Yossi Melman AN ISRAELI VIEW

Assassinations, or as they are termed in Israel, "targeted killings," are nothing new to the Israeli intelligence community. But over the years, at least until the 1970s, they were considered a last resort, a means to be employed rarely and wisely.

There were a few reasons for this caution. First, many in the intelligence community thought over the years that espionage was not mafia-style Murder, Inc. More important, the policy of targeted killings is a double-edged sword. What you do to your opponents, they can do to you.

The first time Israeli intelligence carried out an assassination was on July 11, 1956. Colonel Mustafa Hafez, Egyptian commander of military intelligence in the Gaza Strip and the man responsible for sending the fedayeen infiltrators to Israel, was killed when a book he received exploded.

The use of mail bombs became a central tool in the 1960s, especially in harrassing and assassinating German (former Nazi) scientists who were involved in developing advanced weapons for Egypt.

After the Six-Day War, the fight against Palestinian terror, both in the territories and beyond the borders of Israel, moved assassinations up the ladder of Israeli intelligence priorities. But the watershed was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972 by "Black September," a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) front. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered Mossad head Zvi Zamir to embark upon a campaign of targeted killings of anyone directly or indirectly connected with the athletes' murder.

It was the first time in the history of Israeli intelligence that it had been directed to initiate a "project"--not a one-time killing but a systematic elimination of dozens of people.

A pattern was set in motion at that time that became the basis for similar operations to this day. Intelligence compiled a list of targets; today it is known as a "bank". A special, limited forum known as the "X Committee" had the authority to approve Mossad requests to eliminate a person on the list. The X Committee would consult the attorney general, who served as a one-man court, sentencing the suspect to death.

This was also the first time that the motive for the assassination was revenge. Although it was couched in lofty terms like "deterrence" and "future prevention" of terror, it was clear that the urge to avenge the deaths of the Israeli athletes was the main reason for the decision.

The systematic assassination campaign suffered a near fatal blow in July 1973 in Lillehammer, Norway, when Mossad gunmen, out to eliminate Ali Hassan Salameh, who was believed to be the brains of Black September, mistakenly shot and killed a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Boushiki.

The failure in Norway brought several questions into sharp relief: Are targeted killings worthwhile? If so, who should the targets be? Although clear answers have never been formulated, a kind of tacit understanding was reached whereby targeted killings are permissible, in certain circumstances, but the use of this weapon must be cautious, wise and rare.

It was advisable that only senior operational commanders should be targeted, those whose deaths would result in a serious impairment of the organizations' operational capabilities. Responsibility should not be taken publicly so that Israel would not appear to be using terror itself, and so that its relations with other countries were not damaged, as they were with Norway and with Jordan after the attempt to assassinate Hammas leader Khaled Mashaal in 1997.

The intelligence community also assumes that it is possible, even desirable, to hit leaders of small organizations, those that are no more than a "one-man show." Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad, was killed in October 1995 on the assumption that killing him would put an end to the capabilities of his small organization. His presumed successor, Abdullah Ramadan Shalah, was considered ineffectual and lacking in leadership capabilities.

Those assumptions were proved wrong. Shalah proved to be a capable leader, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza has produced some of the worst suicide bombings of recent years.

The most important element that is always taken into consideration in discussions between the intelligence chiefs and the political echelon is the cost-benefit ratio. If the assassination leads to a severe response on the part of the terror organizations, then it was a losing proposition.

This consideration was apparently either forgotten when it came to the targeted killing of the director-general of Hezbollah, Abbas Moussawi, in southern Lebanon in 1992, or those who made the decision operated on the basis of mistaken assumptions. Hezbollah's response was stinging: two car bombs in Buenos Aires, against the buildings housing the Israel Embassy and the Jewish community organization, in which more than 100 people were killed and many were injured.

With hindsight, there is no doubt that many in the intelligence community believe that the 1988 decision to hit Khalil al-Wazir, Yasser Arafat's deputy, also known as Abu Jihad, was a mistake. Looking back, it is clear to many that his death left Arafat alone at the leadership level of the PLO, without the counsel of a talented and pragmatic strategist.

Always, even at the height of assassination wars, there was a kind of silent agreement on both sides not to hit "national" leaders. Here and there, exceptions cropped up, like the failed attempt of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to kill then former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion during a visit to Scandinavia in the 1960s, or plans devised already in the late 1960s and again in Lebanon in 1982 to kill Arafat.

Already in 1998, after the failed attempt against Meshal, the subcommittee for intelligence and security services of the Knesset which investigated the case published an unprecedented critical statement in which it said,"for many years the governments of Israel have not formulated policies in the war against terror organizations that are based on fundamental thought processes and continuity...".

But over the last three years, and especially with the unwise decision to kill Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, all the basic assumptions and past lessons have been forgotten or abandoned. From a weapon of last resort, assassination has become the most available of weapons; from wise and cautious use, it is now widespread and wholesale.

This change has damaged another, mainly psychological, assumption: the mystery that surrounded previous assassinations cast fear into the hearts of the enemy by their very rarity and sophistication. That mystery dissipates the moment the act becomes routine. This, more than anything else, shows the long road the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence and security forces have traveled, from daring and creativity to paralyzed thinking. -Published 29/3/2004©

Yossi Melman is a senior correspondent with the Israeli daily Haaretz and author of several books on intelligence, clandestine diplomacy and foreign policy.

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