ONCE details related to the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh began emerging earlier this month, a fairly interesting unofficial reaction followed in Israel. Only a tiny proportion of commentators bothered to express any doubts about Mossad’s involvement, claiming the elaborate murder plot was quite possibly an attempt by a hostile state to malign Israel. Of course, had that indeed been the case, there would have been little reason for Israel not to plainly deny responsibility instead of opting for ambiguity with the mantra that there is “no proof” of an Israeli role.
The majority of commentators were divided between hailing the operation as a shining success and lamenting it as a relatively botched effort in which the murderous mission was accomplished at the cost of leaving behind CCTV footage that captured the assassination squad’s movements. One or two warned that Mossad may have erred in tangling with one of the Arab world’s most efficient police forces. That such actions are liable to further diminish the already remote prospects for a peaceful settlement barely occasioned any comment, quite possibly because no one seriously expects any meaningful movement beyond the status quo in the foreseeable future.
The Dubai transgression has not attracted a great deal of attention in the American media, but the European reaction has been rather different – although much of the moral outrage has been directed not towards the sordid murder but towards the fact that members of the hit squad entered Dubai (and left it barely 19 hours later) on European passports. Six of the 11 suspects initially named by Dubai police were using British passports. Intriguingly, the passports had been issued in the names of actual British citizens settled in Israel – all of whom were apparently shocked to find themselves on an Interpol wanted list.
One French, one German and three Irish passports had similar origins. The assumption is that they were clever forgeries, given that the originals hadn’t been stolen. Official sources in the United Arab Emirates have been quoted as insisting that the passports were authentic. They could be mistaken, of course. But there is at least one compelling twist. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, quoting German media outlets, has reported that an Israeli by the name of Michael Bodenheimer approached immigration officials in Cologne last June, provided the pre-war address of his grandparents, and thereby procured German citizenship – and a German passport. The real Bodenheimer, who emigrated to Israel from the US 20 years ago, evidently holds only American and Israeli citizenship.
Inevitably, many Israelis have been asking why Mossad would steal the identities of living citizens and put them to nefarious use. In the past, it has on occasion used the stolen identities of foreign citizens for such purposes. For instance, in the 1979 assassination in Beirut of Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of operations for the Black September terrorist group that had murdered 11 Israeli athletes in Munich seven years earlier, one of the killers was travelling under the name of a council worker in London. When the issue arose again in 1987, Israel assured the Thatcher government that it wouldn’t use British passports again. A similar assurance was offered to Canada a decade later, after it turned out that Mossad agents travelling on doctored Canadian passports were behind the attempted murder of Hamas chief Khaled Meshal in Amman. Not long afterwards, a couple of Israelis were briefly detained in New Zealand for obtaining the country’s passports under false pretences.
The world of undercover espionage is generally a murky zone where devious means are routinely employed for all manner of purposes, including assassinations. Yet the degree of indulgence extended to Israel by the west in this sphere is remarkable: it’s hard to imagine even another ally being allowed to get away with murder quite so frequently. There are, of course, rarely any claims of responsibility, but the impunity with which Israel routinely violates international sovereignty forms part of the broader national narrative whereby the ruthless elimination of enemies is portrayed as an essential part of the struggle for survival. But the narrative doesn’t quite hold up. If terrorist tactics by the Israeli state can be condoned as a crucial component of a survival strategy, where does that leave the grounds for condemning acts of terrorism by Hamas or other Palestinian organizations?
In the specific case of Mabhouh, it is not entirely clear why Mossad was particularly keen to kill him. He was apparently behind the kidnapping and execution of two Israeli soldiers during the first Intifada 20 years ago, so retribution is one probable cause but doesn’t explain the timing. It has been insinuated that the victim was involved in smuggling weapons into Gaza, and may have been lured to Dubai on the pretext of an Iranian arms deal. That’s certainly a possibility, and one Haaretz commentator has described Mabhouh’s assassination as “a mortal blow to Hamas” – which is hardly likely, even if he was a leading honcho in the Hamas hierarchy. The saga is further complicated, meanwhile, by the detention in Dubai of two men possibly associated with the Palestinian Authority, who were extradited by Jordan while apparently trying to get away, and the reported questioning in Damascus of Nahru Massoud, a senior figure in the military wing of Hamas, who was in Abu Dhabi until shortly before Mabhouh’s murder. It’s unclear whether any of them is included in the revised figure of 18 for the death squad.
Hamas and Fatah have accused each other of collaboration with Mossad in this context, and such disputes among Palestinians are obviously a boon for the Israeli state. But it also has little to fear from the ritual condemnation of its tactics by the European Union or Britain. Dubai’s perennial police chief Dhahi Khalfan has, meanwhile, been relishing the international limelight while projecting the efficiency of his force, which is currently working with investigators from Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency. However, even if a smoking gun were to be found – rather than just a bunch of smoking passports – what are the chances that Israel would face even semi-serious repercussions at the diplomatic or any other level?