JERUSALEM -- Two killings 24 years apart have brought a public spotlight on Israel's history of assassinating enemies.
Both killings -- one an embarrassing mistake and the other celebrated here as a victory -- have been attributed to Israel's intelligence agencies.
Officially, Israel refuses to acknowledge responsibility for either incident, a policy it has long maintained when blamed for any of dozens of assassinations in the Middle East and abroad.
Prime Minister Shimon Peres took that stance even further last week when he bluntly rejected a Cabinet member's acknowledgment of Israel's role in the 1973 killing of a waiter in Norway.
"Israel is not a killing organization," Mr. Peres said, speaking to foreign reporters. "As a country, we never took upon ourselves, and never shall we go into, the business of killing."
Just moments before, however, he seemed to take responsibility for the assassination earlier this month in the Gaza Strip of Yehiya Ayyash, a Palestinian nicknamed "the Engineer" and considered the mastermind of a series of terrorist bombings that killed 55 Israelis.
"If someone thinks he can kill the Israelis and that Israel will remain indifferent, that's a slight exaggeration," Mr. Peres said.
Israel's assassination of those it deems terrorists has long been documented. But the practice is rarely publicly debated in Israel, in part because of the government's long-standing refusal to acknowledge it. But that deniability has eroded.
Last week, Norway released 1,000 classified documents detailing Israel's attempts in 1973 and 1974 to gain the release of five agents of Israel's Mossad, the foreign intelligence agency, who were convicted of the murder of a waiter in Lillehammer.
The documents, Israel radio reported, show that Israel exerted "heavy diplomatic pressure" to get Norway to pardon the five. They were released after short prison terms because of the diplomatic pressure and "threats by Jewish terrorist organizations to attack Norwegian institutions." Israel's government made no response to the report.
The agents had mistaken a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, for Ali Hassan Salameh, a Palestinian believed by Israel to have helped plan the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
Those agents were seeking Mr. Salameh, code-named the "Red Prince," as part of an assassination campaign ordered after the Munich massacre by then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. Already about a dozen Palestinians had been killed -- by letter bombs, bombs planted in telephones, bombs planted under beds -- before the Lillehammer mistake, according to Aharon Yariv, Mrs. Meir's adviser on terrorism, who acknowledged the campaign in 1993. Mr. Salameh was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 1979.
Israel's Minister of Communication, Shulamit Aloni, repeated two weeks ago Israel's responsibility for Mr. Bouchiki's death, and said Israel ought to compensate his widow, Toril Larsen Bouchiki.
"I regret that Israel has not apologized before," Mrs. Aloni said in an interview with a Norwegian newspaper. "We went to a friendly country and killed a man by mistake. We must pay compensation. That is only fair."
Mr. Peres testily distanced himself from Mrs. Aloni's remarks, which he called "her own interesting ideas." But three days later, he quietly appointed a lawyer to contact the widow in Norway to discuss compensation terms.
The assassination of Mr. Ayyash, "the Engineer," could have a higher cost.
The killing of Mr. Ayyash with a booby-trapped mobile telephone has already provoked the largest anti-Israel rallies among Palestinians in years. An estimated 20,000 gathered last week in the Gaza Strip, and a similarly sized crowd protested in Nablus.
On each occasion, dozens of young men vowed revenge against Israel. Similar vows in the past have been kept.
An Israeli ambush killing Hezbollah's leader, Abbas Musawi, in southern Lebanon in 1992 brought a series of attacks by Islamic groups. A car bomb in the Gaza Strip that killed Hani Abed, an Islamic Jihad activist, in November 1994 and the assassination in Malta last October of Islamic Jihad's leader, Fathi Shakaki -- both blamed on Israel -- were followed by numerous bombing attempts, some of them successful.
At a minimum, the anti-Israel rallies are souring the mood among Palestinians as Israel seeks to continue the peace process. Those considerations have not given the Israeli public much pause. A poll published last week in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot found that 87 percent of Israelis surveyed approved the assassination of Mr. Ayyash.
"I don't think there's any question that for most Israelis, the elimination of 'the Engineer' was very legitimate," said Joseph Alpher, an analyst for the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem and a former member of the Mossad.
"Killing is not morally justifiable. But in a war, everybody kills. This is a war," he said. "You can't adopt a morally different standard than they do and expect to be effective."
The lauding of Mr. Ayyash by Palestinians and by the Arab press has been viewed by Israelis as evidence about the moral standards of their foes.
Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, pronounced Mr. Ayyash -- who was a supporter of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas, and whose victims included civilian women and children aboard Israeli buses -- a "martyr." A newspaper in Bahrain talked of Mr. Ayyash's "lofty principles and goals"; an Egyptian commentator called him "a symbol and an inspiration for an entire people."
But Israeli newspapers expressed no reservations about the government's use of murder. They applauded the operation as "clever" and "brilliant," and concluded that the retiring head of the domestic intelligence agency, Karmi Gilon, had atoned for his organization's failure to protect Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from a Jewish assassin Nov. 4.
Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli author and commentator, has offered a minority view by criticizing both the assassination of Mr. Ayyash and the Israelis' reaction to it.
"There was this clear satisfaction for gaining a blood revenge," he says. "That's what made the Israelis very pleased, and created the opposite urge on the [Palestinian] side. Our 'archenemy' is the mirror image of their 'great hero.' "
There will be an almost inevitable retaliation, but Israelis will not zTC understand their role in causing it, Mr. Benvenisti says. Shlomo Gazit, a former director of military intelligence, disagrees. He believes Palestinian terrorist acts would occur even without the motivation of revenge.
"I definitely think strategically [that assassinations] are the right thing to do. I don't think Hamas needs any special excuse or any encouragement by Israel for their acts of terrorism," he says.
"I don't see any chance of bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table unless they know they are not going to win the terrorist war."