Edition 6 Volume 8 - March 01, 2024

The Mabhouh assassination in Dubai

A scandal for Israeli intelligence - an interview with  Mustafa Alani

Israel will not admit to a crime and never to a failure.

Hypocrisy -   Yossi Alpher

If Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan passed the real assassins in the street tomorrow he wouldn't recognize them.

A brilliant blunder -   Josef Joffe

How do you weigh a tactical triumph against a strategic blunder?

Israel must be held accountable -   Ghassan Khatib

Israel has for too long been allowed to act as a country above the law.

A scandal for Israeli intelligence
an interview with Mustafa Alani

BI: Are you surprised that the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh has turned into a major diplomatic incident?

Alani: Actually it is a major scandal. Israeli intelligence has become overconfident and careless. Israel seems to think that no other intelligence agency can trace any operation of the Mossad. But it was very easy to unravel the operation and discover the people behind it, their method, the duplicate passports and the size of the team. We know their faces and in some cases there are even biological traces. So it is a major scandal for Israeli intelligence.

BI: Israel maintains that there is no direct proof...

Alani: There will never be direct proof. The only direct proof was in 1997 when Israel tried to assassinate Khalid Mishaal in Jordan and three agents were captured and Israel was forced to take legal and moral responsibility.

But the evidence that Israel is behind this is overwhelming. We are not in any case expecting admission. It is a crime and a failure. But Israel will not admit to a crime and never to a failure.

BI: What consequences do you expect from this whole affair, particularly diplomatic?

Alani: There are at least six states whose documents were used in the operation and we expect these states to take a strong stance in investigating Israel's misuse of their official documents. But we cannot be sure, because from previous experience, when Israel used Canadian or Australian passports, there were protests but no real steps to hold Israel responsible.

We don't know now what will happen. We are optimistic because the countries are cooperating with the investigation. But we cannot predict how far these countries will take their investigations under pressure from the Israelis.

As for the Gulf states, Israel has suffered a lot from the operation. Even those countries that tried to open relations with Israel after the peace process started will now have to look again at their contacts. The assassination was an insult in addition to being a crime and a violation of Gulf sovereignty.

BI: This happened a few days after an Israeli minister took part in a conference in Dubai. What do you make of the timing?

Alani: It was very stupid timing. While the minister in question came as part of an international conference and not as an Israeli official, nevertheless, when a country shows good faith and is repaid by a team of criminals committing such a crime on its territory, this is simply abuse of another nation's hospitality. This forms part of the political and operational failure of the assassination.

BI: Does the assassination enhance Israeli deterrence?

Alani: On the contrary, Israel is now deterred. The fact that the operation was discovered and 26 agents exposed has to be a major deterrence for Israel. This is an operation that has collapsed the image of the Mossad as an agency that does not make mistakes. In this way it has backfired.

BI: Why did the Dubai authorities decide to pursue such a public investigation?

Alani: It is a public crime, one committed against someone visiting the country. It was important to acknowledge that the crime was discovered and that the people and state behind it were uncovered. It is important to say that, yes, the crime was committed, but at the same time those guilty were exposed and we know how it transpired.

BI: This was the third high-profile murder in Dubai in a short time. Do you feel Dubai also needed to send a message?

Alani: This is an open city and people have been taking advantage of this openness. The fact that the people behind these three crimes were discovered and identified is a major success. Confidence is very high. Yes, you cannot prevent people coming to an open city and committing crimes. But at the same time, it is a major deterrence when those behind such crimes are uncovered and with solid evidence.- Published 1/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Mustafa Alani is senior advisor and program director of Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

 Yossi Alpher

The international reaction to the murder in his Dubai hotel room a month ago of Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and the sensational revelations that have followed, constitute a near-universal exercise in hypocrisy.

Let's begin with Dubai. It is the region's main sanctions-busting transshipment station for Iran and its banks a laundering station for drug money from Afghanistan. None of this in the least disturbs Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan as he vents his outrage at a murder he attributes with 99 percent certainty to the Mossad. In reality, for all his media bravado, he appears to have no hard evidence whatsoever linking Israel or any other actor to the actual deed. His sensational CCTV shots of disguised assassins may have "burned" a couple dozen fake identities, but if he passed the real assassins in the street tomorrow he wouldn't recognize them.

Then there is Syria, from whence Mabhouh traveled to Dubai on one of several passports Damascus conveniently supplied him. Dubai's threats against European governments whose passports were forged or adapted for this operation apparently don't apply to Syria. Indeed, Khalfan complained that, had he known Mabhouh's real identity when the latter arrived in Dubai, the police would have protected this arch terrorist. In any event, that Syria hosts Hamas and forges passports for it, even as it reasserts its hegemony over Lebanon and hosts an Iran-Hizballah-Hamas summit in Damascus--doesn't appear to even scratch its new Teflon image in European eyes.

Apropos Europe and its growing fury over the abuse of its passports, this is not the first time Israel has been accused of doctoring them. In the past, these issues blew over very quickly--about as fast as it reportedly took the UK embassy in Tel Aviv to offer to issue new passports to the dual Israeli-UK citizens whose identities were compromised in Dubai. Certainly, European intelligence circles that depend on Israel for information and early warning about Islamist terrorism are likely to lobby to ignore the transgression.

Here there is also a second hypocrisy factor. European governments, including Britain, France and Germany whose passports were used in Dubai, have for years been releasing captured terrorists to avoid "complications", buy favors with Middle East terrorist movements and purchase discount oil from radical governments. They know they themselves should be doing more against the two Islamist emirates on the Mediterranean, Hamas and Hizballah, and their Iranian patron.

Yet there is a hypocrisy issue in Israel as well when it comes to Hamas. However justified the death of the man in charge of military contacts between Hamas and Iran, the media festival in Israel over his departure should not be allowed to obfuscate the broader picture.

Israel's overall security benefits from Mabhouh's elimination not only in terms of disrupting Hamas-Iran security cooperation but also as a deterrent against other Hamas officials operating abroad. It is clear to Hamas that the ingenuity and sophistication that were invested in locating and tracking Mabhouh were not a one-time investment. It was enough to watch the panicked appearance of Hamas leaders on TV when the murder was first confirmed three weeks ago to appreciate the fear it has instilled in an organization that preaches Israel's destruction and deliberately attacks its civilian population. Parallel revelations in a new book published in America by the "green prince", the son of a Hamas leader who spied for Israel for years, sent his father to prison and thwarted dozens of suicide attacks, also signal Hamas that there is dissent within its ranks.

On the other hand, the Dubai assassination (along with a previous, little noticed assassination of a Hamas senior operative in Beirut) moves the struggle against Hamas abroad. Hamas has vowed to take revenge. Until now, it has not operated against Israel outside of Israel/Palestine. That could now conceivably change, to Israel's detriment.

Further, the assassination contributes--given that it is nearly universally attributed to Israel--not only to Israel's image as a global anti-terrorist superstar, but also unfortunately to its growing reputation of lawlessness and disregard for international norms. In this sense, like Israel's undoubted military achievements against Hamas in Gaza a year ago, this assassination fuels a nasty international campaign to delegitimize Israel. Israelis can no longer take this "Goldstone effect" lightly.

Finally, the murder in Dubai must not be allowed to conceal the most fundamental question concerning Hamas and Israel. The assassination of a Hamas bad guy might be a lot more understandable if Israel had a rational and constructive overall strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. But it doesn't. Israeli security circles appear to be willfully ignoring the failure of all the strategies they have invoked in recent years.

The use of force against non-state actors like Hamas does achieve deterrence, but only temporarily. Economic warfare--the prolonged siege of Gaza and closing of its borders to commerce--has failed to topple or even weaken the Hamas regime there. It has inflicted collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans and has impoverished the moderate middle class and farmers who used to depend on Israel for trade while empowering Hamas and nouveau riche tunnel operators. Reliance on Egypt to mediate between Israel and Gaza has generated few if any benefits. Cairo's strategy of making sure Gaza is Israel's problem, not Egypt's, hardly renders it an honest broker.

All these strategies, which form the backdrop to the Dubai events, have proven counter-productive. At least Israel is in good company. It can take comfort in the blessing given by the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia) to the economic boycott of Gaza. And its military response a year ago got a wink and a nod from the moderate Arabs, including the PLO, who themselves have no solutions for Hamas and what it represents.

But at the end of the day, Egypt is right: Hamas is Israel's problem. Beyond the clouds of hypocrisy, the death of Mabhouh is a very partial and temporary solution.-Published 1/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

A brilliant blunder
 Josef Joffe

The Dubai operation looks like a brilliant bungle. Brilliant because it was swift, smooth and effective. Hamas commander Mahmoud Mabhouh is dead and, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, which quotes an unnamed senior Hamas man, the perpetrators took a cell-phone and a set of documents that reveal arms sources and arms deals and so seriously damage future procurement.

Add to this that Mabhouh was responsible for the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers more than 20 years ago. That's good for deterrence, the action proving that Israel never forgets and forgives. Not bad for a day's work that demonstrates superb logistics and precise coordination.

But weigh this against the blunder. The conspiracy-minded might argue that the mess was part of a well-laid plan. Accordingly, the false beards and mustaches, the oversized sunglasses, the untrammeled cell-phone traffic, and the what-do-I-care antics in front of the security cameras all add up to a performance neither typical nor worthy of Israeli intelligence. Hence this vaudeville act was staged to look like a mukhabarat mise-en-scene, and we know how incompetent Arab security services are, don't we? Blame it on Fateh, Hamas' deadly rival, or on the Egyptians or Saudis who have lots of accounts to square with Hamastan, Iran's ally and client.

Alas, it ain't so. The evidence thickens that it was an Israeli op. There are just too many passports (formerly) belonging to Brits and Irish living in Israel. The latest batch, 15 more, includes suspects from France and Australia, according to Dubai. And then there is this Michael Bodenheimer, an Israeli who showed up in Cologne to claim German heritage and a German passport last summer. He has since disappeared "spurlos", which is German for "without a trace".

Let's assume the Mossad did it. Why on earth did these super-smart folks think the passport ploy would go unnoticed in today's post-9/11 world where every travel document is scrutinized, digitally filed and compiled? Above all in Dubai, which is so super-vigilant precisely because it is an "airport state", that is, a hub of global in-and-out movement?

So a Hamas kingpin of highest strategic value was killed; that's one up for Israel, no matter who done it. But the fall-out is not exactly on the small side. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is blaming Israel; so is Britain, so is Ireland, so is the entire European Union. On the last occasion, Israel swore holy oaths never to use foreign identities again. If Israel did it, the passport gambit would be an in-your-face provocation that would not endear the country in Europe. For all its hostilities, Europe is still Israel's most important asset next to the United States.

How do you weigh a tactical triumph against a strategic blunder, politically defined? Dubai is no warm friend of Israel, but friendly enough by, say, Syrian and Iranian standards. Was it worth it to kick the UAE in the teeth?

The argument in response is: Strengthening deterrence in the Hobbesian world of the Middle East is always a good thing. And reliable deterrence always requires a heavy dose of apparent irrationality and real ruthlessness. This is true. But why would Israel want to look like yet another rogue state that defies those minimal standards by which the western world lives? The West is where Israel's home is.

Reputation is a double-edged combat-knife. One side signals: "Don't mess with me; I will hit you twice as hard where it hurts." The other says: "I am part of the West; I will live by a code of conduct that marks me as a member of that community. And if I defy it, as a country that does not share the happy fate of Sweden sometimes must, I will be circumspect and discreet." This operation was neither.

But that's not all. Israel is a vibrant, cacophonous democracy. Hence a chorus of Israeli voices condemns the Dubai killing as vigorously as any European critic. Here is the worst-case scenario: The Knesset forms a commission, a drawn-out investigation begins, charges and counter-charges are batted back and forth, Mossad practices undergo painful public scrutiny, and finally, heads roll.

The blow-back, if it materializes, will not strengthen deterrence vis-a-vis Arabs and Iran. Instead it will increase self-deterrence and so weaken Israel's will to act next time round. What if the next challenge is a matter of true necessity rather than choice, as the Mabhouh case seems to have been?- Published 1/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Josef Joffe is publisher/editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and a senior fellow at Stanford's Institute for International Studies as well as Abramowitz Fellow of the University's Hoover Institution.

Israel must be held accountable
 Ghassan Khatib

The assassination of a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai in January was not the first such Israeli assassination of a Palestinian and will most probably not be the last. This one, however, created the biggest international furor that Israel may yet have faced over such an act.

There are three reasons for these strong and negative international reactions. First, the murder happened on sovereign Arab soil and in a country that has been looked on as an example of economic success based on security and stability.

That it happened, moreover, shortly after Dubai allowed an Israeli minister to take part in an international conference there and at a time when the US was exerting extra effort to convince moderate Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, to make gestures to Israel as part of attempts to renew a political process, just adds insult to injury.

Second, those behind the operation forged passports from at least four friendly western states, thus violating their sovereignty in a way that embarrassed those governments in front of their own citizens, angered at such chutzpah.

The public outcry in these countries, including in Britain and Germany, was such that many independent analysts and journalists went so far as to accuse their own governments of complicity. Such criticism has only added to the pressure on the governments in question to evince a strong and critical reaction as well as actively pursue the forgery cases.

Third, the victim was accused of taking part in the capture and killing of two Israeli soldiers 20 years ago as well as arms dealing. But to determine guilt we are asked simply to take Israel's word. This is typical. Israel has acted as judge and executioner for decades now, constantly by-passing universally accepted norms for prosecuting people through transparent procedures.

Before Mabhouh, the last example of such behavior was the assassination of three Palestinians in January in Nablus. Israel justified their murders by saying the victims had been party to the killing of a settler. But no courtroom heard their case, nor was a jury involved to determine sentence. They had no legal representation; they were simply killed.

This latest murder is entirely consistent with this typical Israeli disregard for international legality and other states' sovereignty. And the way the international community in the past has treated Israel's negligence of international law and other people's rights has indirectly encouraged such behavior. Israel has been allowed to act as a country above the law.

But the last year or two have witnessed growing international fatigue with such behavior, whether vis-a-vis Palestinian rights or as far as peace efforts are concerned. The fact that the Dubai authorities, so dogged and impressive in pursuing the investigation, have uncovered the many people involved and the fact that the sovereignty of so many states was violated, should encourage all these countries to pursue the case to its end and teach Israel a lesson that will be as useful to Israel as it is to the victims.

Not holding Israel accountable for its actions, as has been the case for far too long now, is directly responsible for Israel's lurch to extremism and hooliganism.- Published 1/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

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