Damascus Whodunnit


By Ofer Shelah

Published October 01, 2004, issue of October 01, 2004.
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TEL AVIV — In his lifetime, Iz a-Din al-Sheikh Khalil’s name was known only to the top Hamas experts within the Israeli and Western intelligence communities. Though he was a senior political-military operative, he wasn’t one of the recognized faces of the Palestinian movement, like Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Abd al-Aziz Rantisi or Khaled Mashal.

That changed last Sunday morning when Khalil’s car blew up outside his Damascus home, killing him and wounding three passersby. He thus became the latest high-profile casualty in a sophisticated, high-stakes game of messages, moves and countermoves between Jerusalem and Damascus. The game pits not only Israel against Syria, but also Syria against Palestinian terrorist groups and even Israel’s political leadership against its military brass.

Not surprisingly, when Israeli security officials rushed almost gleefully, if anonymously, to acknowledge that Israel was behind the killing, it only confirmed the widespread assumption here and abroad that there was more there than met the eye.

The assassination comes amid a flurry of contradictory signals. Syria has indicated repeatedly in the past year that it is ready to renew peace talks with Israel, which collapsed in February 2000. Israel refuses, accusing Syria of harboring and sponsoring Palestinian terrorism. Israel heated up its rhetoric last month, after the deadly August 31 double bus bombing in Beersheva, which Jerusalem blames on Syria.

At the same time, the Khalil assassination punctuates an escalating war of words within Israel’s political and security leadership over how to respond to the Syrian peace feelers. On one side is the top army command, much of which favors sitting down with Damascus and has been unusually open about saying so. On the other side are Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top political allies, who call the Syrian offers a ploy to win favor with Washington.

In a reflection of the intensity of the debate, some figures close to the defense establishment were hinting this week that the Khalil assassination might have been carried out by the Mossad secret service, which answers directly to the prime minister, as a way to sabotage the Syrian peace opening. “Maybe it was done deliberately to undermine this possibility,” Hebrew University political scientist Moshe Maoz, one of Israel’s top Syrian affairs experts, told The Jerusalem Post this week.

Syria, for its part, has declined to take the bait, pointedly refraining from criticizing Israel directly for its presumed role in the assassination. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and attacked Israel for a host of sins, but killing a Hamas leader in Damascus was not among them.

Israel has a long history of targeted hits in foreign countries, Arab and otherwise, and almost as long a history of refusing to comment on whether its agents were responsible. A rare exception was the botched 1997 attempt to assassinate Sheik Khaled Mashal in Jordan. After two Mossad operatives were nabbed trying to spray the Hamas leader with poison, then-agency chief Danny Yatom was forced to fly to Amman with the antidote. In a further bid to pacify an irate King Hussein, Israel freed Sheikh Yassin from prison, giving Hamas a boost.

This time, by contrast, Israeli officials seemed almost eager to announce their role. Within hours of the assassination, several security sources had leaked claims of responsibility to the press. No one has confirmed it officially, but Deputy Defense Minister Ze’ev Boim this week refused to confirm or deny it, reiterating that Israel still blames Syria for aiding Palestinian terrorism.

Here the plot thickens. A week before the Damascus bombing, the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat reported that “an Arab intelligence service” had provided Israel with details of the whereabouts of certain Hamas operatives in Damascus. Mashal, the de facto head of Hamas after the assassinations of Yassin and Abdul-Aziz Al-Rantisi, promptly left the Syrian capital, declaring: “I know the Mossad is after me.” That Friday, news agencies reported that Syria had ordered all Palestinian terrorist headquarters in Damascus closed.

Khalil’s death two days later turned the events into a field day for conspiracy theorists. Some sources suggested the Arab service in question was Egypt’s, but considerable speculation pointed to Syria.

Did Syria, pressured by Washington to abandon the “axis of evil” or bear the consequences, help Israel in its act of revenge? Or did Sharon, in authorizing the killing of Khalil, intend to send a message that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s peace talk is less important to Israel than his harboring of terrorists?

Israel’s approach toward Syria has been a subject of internal Israeli debate for months. Assad publicly called last December for new Israeli-Syrian peace talks, offering what analysts called a softening of his terms. Weeks later Israel’s military intelligence chief, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, told a Knesset committee that Assad’s overture should be taken seriously. That won him a public tongue-lashing from Sharon, who said there would be no talks while Syria harbored terrorists — and added that Israel in any case would not return the entire Golan Heights, a basic Syrian condition for any agreement.

The military has continued arguing behind close doors that by dismissing the Syrian opening, Israel was missing an opportunity to close a “circle of peace” with its neighbors, disarm Hezbollah, cut a terrorist support base and isolate Iran, its most dangerous enemy.

The argument went public again August 13, when General Moshe Ya’alon, the army chief of staff, made the case for a Syrian pact in an interview with Yediot Aharonot. “From the standpoint of military needs it is possible to reach an agreement with Syrian and give up the Golan,” Ya’alon said.

He added: “The army knows how to defend any border. That’s true for any decision the Israeli political echelon takes.”

The pro-negotiations faction ratcheted up its pressure last week, just days before the assassination, when a top figure in past talks with Syria publicly accused Israel’s leadership of “unforgivably” flubbing repeated opportunities to reach a peace deal. The expert, retired Major General Uri Saguy, head of military intelligence under Yitzhak Rabin and chief negotiator with Syria under Ehud Barak, claimed in a Yediot interview that agreements had been all but concluded under Rabin, Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, but each had pulled back at the last minute, apparently for domestic political reasons.

Beyond the politics, the Khalil killing is a major morale and image boost for the Mossad. Once revered around the globe for its daring operations, in recent years it is known more for its blunders, including the attempt on Mashal and the more recent New Zealand passport scandal.

Current Mossad chief Meir Dagan, a longtime Sharon ally who in the 1970s commanded a special assassination unit in Gaza, has vowed to rebuild the organization’s operations capabilities. The Khalil assassination follows several actions against Hezbollah operatives in Beirut, for which no one claimed responsibility. Some of them resulted in incidents along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Some experts wondered what sort of fallout this operation might have. The 1992 assassination of Hezbollah leader Abbas Mussawi in Lebanon, they recalled, led to a pair of bloody bombings in Argentina. The question was whether Hamas now might seek the same sort of trans-border capability that Hezbollah developed.

But the top brass appears to have concluded that such a response is not likely. Syria, the terrorists’ main patron, seems unperturbed if not pleased by Khalil’s killing. And Hamas, experts say, is not Hezbollah.

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