JERUSALEM – Israeli security officials said Wednesday they were convinced the Mossad was behind the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai and harshly criticized the spy agency for allegedly stealing the identities of its own citizens to carry out the hit.
Names released by Dubai matched seven people living in Israel, raising questions about why the agency would endanger its own people by using their passport data as cover for a secret death squad.
At the same time, some Israeli experts said the Dubai evidence pointed to a setup to falsely blame Israel.
A vague comment from Israel's foreign minister, who neither confirmed nor denied Mossad's involvement, only added to the spy novel-like mystery surrounding the slaying of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was found dead Jan. 20 at a luxury hotel near Dubai's international airport.
"Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in Israel's first official comment on the affair, then added: "I don't know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports."
Some senior Israeli security officials not directly involved in the case were less circumspect, saying they were convinced it was a Mossad operation because of the motive — Israel says al-Mabhouh supplied Gaza's Hamas rulers with their most dangerous weapons — and the use of Israeli citizens' identities.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a government order not to discuss the case, characterized the operation as a significant Mossad bungle.
If it develops into a full-blown security scandal, that could harm Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu politically.
Some compared the case to another Mossad embarrassment during Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister, the failed attempt to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in 1997. Two Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists were captured after injecting Mashaal with poison, and Israel was forced to send an antidote that saved Mashaal's life. Today Mashaal is Hamas' supreme leader.
Still, there was praise for the Dubai operation from some analysts who noted the major difference between it and the Mashaal case is that the latter failed and the former achieved its goal — the assassination of a Hamas commander.
"Al-Mabhouh is dead and all the partners to the operation left Dubai safely," wrote analyst Ronen Bergman of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Critics slammed the Mossad, not for killing al-Mabhouh on foreign territory but for doing it sloppily and endangering Israeli citizens in the process. A front-page commentary in Israel's Haaretz daily by defense analyst Amir Oren called for the ouster of Mossad director Meir Dagan.
"What is needed now is a swift decision to terminate Dagan's contract and to appoint a new Mossad chief," he wrote. "There's no disease without a cure."
Dubai authorities released names, photos and passport numbers of 11 members of the alleged hit squad this week, saying all 11 carried European passports. But most of the identities appeared to have been stolen, and at least seven matched up with real people in Israel who claim they are victims of identity theft.
Among them is Melvyn Adam Mildiner, a dual Israeli-British citizen who said one of the numbers matched his own UK passport. He told The Associated Press he had never been to Dubai.
Others expressed shock that their names were used. Paul John Keeley, a 43-year-old father of three, told Haaretz he was worried "that someone will try to harm us." Stephen Hodes told Israel Radio: "I'm simply afraid. These are powerful forces."
The revelations by Dubai, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, raised many questions: Could someone be trying to make it look like the Mossad carried out the hit? Might Israel have wanted to leave behind a fingerprint to enhance the Mossad's mystique? Did Israel underestimate Dubai's policing abilities? Why would Israel risk exposing 11 agents by allowing them to be filmed by Dubai surveillance cameras, even if they were disguised?
Answers were not forthcoming, yet if Israeli involvement is confirmed, the al-Mabhouh killing is likely to be remembered as one of the more stunning hits in the Mossad's history of undercover operations.
The affair could have unwanted diplomatic repercussions for Israel. Britain's Foreign Office summoned Israeli Ambassador Ron Prossor for talks about the case Thursday.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised an inquiry, saying: "The British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care."
Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin said Wednesday the three Irish passports did have valid numbers, reversing Ireland's position of a day earlier, but he said they were issued to people with different names than those made public by Dubai. He said the Foreign Ministry was trying to determine whether the passports had been stolen or lost recently.
The Mossad has been accused of identity theft before. New Zealand convicted and jailed two Israelis in 2005 for trying to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports.
However, this would be the first time the Mossad has been suspected of using the identities of its own citizens.
If the Israeli government was behind the identity theft, it broke Israeli laws against impersonation and fraud, said Nirit Moskovich of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Some experts doubted the Mossad was involved.
Rafi Eitan, a former Cabinet minister and Mossad agent who took part in the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960, speculated Israel's foes were trying to frame it by using the identities of Israelis.
"It means some foreign service, an enemy of Israel, wanted to taint Israel. It took the names of Israeli citizens, doctored the passports ... and thus tainted us," Eitan said.
Lawmaker Yisrael Hasson, a former deputy commander of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, urged a meeting of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee to discuss the matter.
"No one should use someone's identity without his permission or without his understanding in some way what it is being used for," Hasson told Israel Radio.
Hamas, for its part, said it had no doubt who was to blame.
"The investigation of the police of Dubai proves what Hamas had said from the first minute, that Israel's Mossad is responsible for the assassination," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator in Gaza.
At a Gaza rally of some 3,000 supporters, Hamas' military wing vowed revenge. Addressing the crowd by phone, Mashaal said the al-Mabhouh assassination "paves the way for capturing soldiers until we free all our prisoners from (Israeli) prisoners."
Israel's spy service has been suspected of carrying out assassinations for decades. Recent ones include Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander who was killed in 2008 by a bomb that ripped through his Pajero SUV in Damascus, Syria. Israel denied any role in the hit.
Tehran also blamed Israel for the death of a senior Iranian physics professor who was killed last month when a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded. Israel did not comment.
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