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In Israel, a Divisive Struggle Over Targeted Killing

Yaalon recalled going to bed doubtful that they would attack; intelligence often unraveled. He said nothing about it to his wife. Dichter recalled going to bed confident he would find the location -- but what about the civilians in the 12-story building? He also said nothing about it to his wife.

Who is a 'Ticking Bomb'?

By 6 a.m. on Sept. 6, Dichter was driving to the command center, a windowless room that glowed with computer screens and smelled of the Friday-night leftovers that agents had brought in -- chocolate rugelach and egg salad.

"The intelligence was good, the mood was good," he recalled. By tracking delivery trucks and following guards, Dichter said, Israeli agents determined that the Hamas meeting would take place at the single-family house, not the 12-story apartment building. Dichter felt relieved. Engineers ran computer analyses to prepare the house for destruction, assessing the cement, the structure and the size of the rooms.

Yaalon also woke up early and anxious. If Dichter was intuitive, Yaalon was analytical. The chief of staff jogged down to the Mediterranean and crashed into the waves. He swam out half a mile, pushing against the swells, and contemplated the day's decisions. "It kept my head busy with fresh oxygen," Yaalon said.

Almost every day, Yaalon had to decide who would live or die. "Who is a 'ticking bomb' ? Can we arrest him? Who is a priority -- this guy first, or this guy first?" Yaalon recalled. Once a week, military intelligence and Shin Bet proposed new names. At first, the list was limited to bombers themselves, but several years later it expanded to those who manufacture bombs and those who plan attacks.

"I called it 'cutting weeds.' I knew their names by heart," Yaalon said. How many did he kill? "Oh, hundreds, hundreds. I knew them. I had all the details with their pictures, maps, intelligence, on the table. Where does he live? What is his routine? Is he married? How many children did he have? If he had lots of kids, it crossed my mind."

It was hard to fathom, Yaalon said: "It became a routine to look into their eyes in the photo. In certain cases it's unbelievable -- he looks so naive, a young guy looks nice, a baby face, especially a 16-year-old suicide bomber. It's beyond imagination."

Reisner, the legal expert, was often consulted at the meetings, which he described as "very, very trying. Especially when I said it's okay. I'd go back to my office and ask my deputy, 'Do you agree?' It's a frightening process to be involved in, sitting in a room and talking about killing someone. It's enough to make your skin crawl."

But once the evidence was presented, Reisner said, when they identified the cafe the terrorist was planning to blow up, or the movie theater he hoped to destroy, "you're reminded of what you're trying to avoid."

When the prime minister approves a target -- a requirement that can take months -- the name is transferred from the Notebook to a shortlist typed on a laminated card. Commanders carry the card in their pockets, along with bus passes and keys. Each target is assigned a file, with instructions on when and where he can be killed. Specialists mark up maps -- green lines for open roads where killings minimize civilian risk, red lines for congested areas to be avoided, Yaalon said. An operation can take 200 people, thousands of man hours, and cost $1 million, Halutz said.

When a target is hit, Reisner said, the feeling is "complicated."

Not for Avi Dichter. "After each success, the only thought is, 'Okay, who's next?' We really have a bottleneck," the former Shin Bet chief said. One time they completed a killing at 5:30 a.m. "I said, 'What are we going to do for the rest of the day?' Nothing limits Hamas attacks, except terrorists still prefer their heads attached to their shoulders. If the M-16 delivers the message, the F-16 delivers it better."

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