Feb. 17, 2010 -- The assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel by a well-choreographed team of assassins dominated the Israeli press today.
The revelations that came out of the Dubai police press conference Monday night, particularly the publication of the 11 foreign passports and the surveillance video, has led many Israelis to suspect their own Mossad secret service is behind the killing.
This mounting speculation of Mossad involvement led Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to, unusually, comment on the reports today.
"There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad, and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief," Lieberman, asked about the operation and alleged passport subterfuge, told Army Radio.
He brushed aside the concern that the use of British, Irish, French and German passports may damage relations with those countries.
"I think Britain recognises that Israel is a responsible country and that our security activity is conducted according to very clear, cautious and responsible rules of the game. Therefore we have no cause for concern," he said speaking about Great Britain in particular where 6 of the 11 forged passports came from.
The Israelis have used foreign passports on operations before and it has got them into trouble. When Mossad tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997 the two assassins used Canadian passports. Canada wasn't happy about that. In the 1980s British authorities shut down the Mossad station in London when stolen British passports were found in a public telephone booth, and several years ago Mossad agents were arrested in New Zealand trying to steal the identity of New Zealand citizens.
Absolute and Total Shock
The latest operation has also upset the people living in Israel who claim their identities were stolen in the process. Up to seven Israeli residents have said their identities and names were used in the operation. Their names and birth details exactly match the passports revealed by the Dubai police.
"I am in absolute and total shock," said Paul John Kealy, a British and Israeli passport holder living in Kibbutz Nahsholim. "Since I realized they used my identity and my name, I've been walking around like a zombie. I hope that I'll get answers from somebody.....one thing is clear to me, I never left the country."
Steven Hodes, another British passport holder living in Beit Shemesh, was similarly surprised at his purported new career as an assassin. "It started like a story that made us laugh, but now we don't know how to take it."
The Israeli papers share a certain satisfaction with the killing of a leading member of Hamas but it is laced with concern about the apparent exposure of the 11 assassins.
"A tactical operational success, but a strategic failure," is the evaluation of leading columnist Ben Caspit writing in Wednesday's edition of the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
Caspit adds: "The publication of their photos and their inclusion in face recognition systems that are already operating in a number of airports may make the bold assassins prisoners in their homeland."
Correspondents with background in intelligence matters say they have been surprised by the efficiency and competence of the Dubai authorities in tracking the movements of the team.
Ronen Bergman writing in the tabloid Yedioth Aharanot asks, "how did the Dubai police succeed in tying up the loose ends and creating what they describe as a coherent and full picture identifying the assassins in their mode of operation?"
The ability to process hours of closed-circuit television footage with the movements of the 11 alleged assassins from different locations has impressed Israeli observers.
New Technology Needed
The suspects' movements and assumed disguises indicate they were aware of Dubai's extensive surveillance network and the need to take precautions. But they and their handlers may have underestimated Dubai's determination and ability to track them and link them to the passports they entered the country with.
The papers have speculated about how it might be possible to defeat the increasingly sophisticated technology available to track and expose Mossad operatives in foreign countries. The widening introduction of biometric passports with individual face recognition may make it impossible to use stolen documents.
Some correspondents say agents may also need technology to disrupt and block surveillance cameras for future operations, of which few doubt there will be more.
One correspondent, after detailing all the implications of the latest revelations and their serious implications, wonders whether the killing of Mahmoud al Mabhouh was worth it.