A Mossad Killing in Dubai

The assassination of Hamas Commander Mahmoud al Mabhouh: Israel's disregard for international boundaries may hinder the carte blanche it considers its birthright.
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The Bustan Rotana Hotel, until a month ago, was known among Dubai residents as a destination for good sushi and old fashioned entertainment. It was the quiet yet classy option; an old gem mingling with a plethora of newer glitzy caravanserais. With a few decent restaurants and functional bars, its primary claim to fame in recent times was a proximity to the Irish Village, a faux Dublin street offering yet another stomping ground to purveyors of ale or lager. Hops at the bottom or the top; to each his fancy.

Then, Mahmoud al Mabhouh, the senior Hamas military commander complicit in the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and instrumental in maintaining a flow of weapons to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, decided to use it as a stop-over. So did a team of assassins who collaboratively pulled off perhaps the most clinical murder Dubai has ever had the umbrage of witnessing on its turf.

Al Mabhouh's actual method of death is unclear. He was either electrocuted, poisoned, strangulated or suffocated. Any permutation or combination of the above. The UAE authorities have little doubt of the identity of the assassins though. Daily newspaper The National quoted Dubai Police flatly noting the political assassination was carried out to a "Mossad method".

Days later, the Dubai police showed CCTV footage of the members of the hit team. Al Mabouh was a dead man from the time he entered Dubai on Emirates flight EK912. He was tailed from the airport to the hotel and even up to his room by hit men alternately clad in tourist casuals or tennis whites. One member booked a room right opposite his at the Bustan Rotana, while others acted in various capacities. If nothing else, the operation was clinical. By the time Al Mabouh was discovered in the confines of room 230, the hit squad had long left town.

Arrest warrants were put out to Interpol for the ten men and one woman directly involved in Al Mabhouh's murder. The truth surfaced a day later. All the assassins had identities pilfered from genuine people -- citizens who had no idea how neatly they had been tied to espionage and murder. The Guardian reports that three of the European identities used by the killers were stolen from Britons living in Israel. In all passport details of 11 people were compromised -- six from Britain, three from Ireland and one apiece from France and Germany.

Israel is, of course, keeping its own counsel as per its policy of deliberate ambiguity in foreign affairs. But the threads tie together in a fairly conclusive knot. The six Britons are all dual citizens resident in Israel. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has gone out of his way not to deny Israeli involvement. And Israel has precedent when it comes to cheap thriller-esque spy games. Recall Munich. Then remember the bungled attempt to kill Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Amman, Jordan, 1997, when agents tried spraying a nerve agent in his ear. Canadian identities were part of the modus operandi then.

The attack is ipso facto a blatant breach of international law. It is also a fairly steep embarrassment to Dubai, which offers open visitation rights for citizens of 36 countries to massage its essential tourism industry. But did the assassination, conducted with supremely blatant disregard for international boundaries or legal apparatuses, benefit Israel more than the inevitable costs?

Al Mabhouh was certainly valuable to Hamas as a strategist as well as conduit. But he will be replaced -- perhaps with someone even more professional. There is the additional benefit of burnishing Mossad's reputation as exceptional in carrying out attrition against perceived enemies. But Mossad's reputation required little help prior to Al Mabhouh's demise. It has long been seen as one of the most effective intelligence and execution apparatuses in the world. Yet that reputation is no deterrent to people hostile or desperate enough to gamble with their lives. Mossad's ability to kill targets hasn't led Hamas or Hezbollah to cower or cover. Neither has it catalyzed a solution, or even a peace process. A reputation for the sake of a reputation is rather pointless. Israel is no safer nor better liked because Mossad and the Kidon are effective at homicides.

Israel is facing the collective ire of Britain over its citizens' stolen identities, Germany for the same reason, Austria where the mobile phones used by the hit squad originated, and Dubai which unwittingly played host to the final chapter of a Kiddon whodunit.

There is little Dubai can do, because it has no diplomatic relationships with Mossad central. But Britian et al are spitting diplomatic fire and brimstone. As Israel becomes an increasing embarrassment to the international community, it may start to receive less of the carte blanche that it considers its birthright.

In the meanwhile, things proceed as they always have; with Israeli ambiguity, Hamas outrage, Mossad effectiveness, Dubai's wounded pride and no recipe for the Israeli Palestinian cauldron boiling in the Middle East's nexus.

I drove past the Bostan Rotana the other day. It no longer seems like an innocuous place for good sushi in proximity to an ale-drinker's paradise. Whatever else, that ostentatiously exotic Kidon homicide has managed that.

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