Editorial: Stolen identities

16:00, Feb 28 2010

British police officers have arrived in Israel in an attempt to find out who or what stole the identities of six British-Israeli nationals and used them in the assassination in Dubai last month of a leader of the Palestinian Hamas organisation. The chances that the police will find anything worthwhile is exceedingly remote. If the murder was carried out by the Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad, as Dubai alleges and many others suspect, the Israeli Government will see to it that the truth never emerges. If it was perpetrated by some other actor – and the possibility that the killing was carried out by Arab agents from Hamas or elsewhere as part of some internecine feud has not been entirely ruled out – there is no chance that any plodding Western investigation is going to get to the bottom of it.

Normally details about such targeted assassinations are obscure, at least until many years after the event. This time, however, Dubai, no doubt for reasons of its own, has released an unusual amount of information about this one. A day-by-day account of how the assassins arrived in the country and joined up to carry out the mission, along with extensive video footage of their movements taken from hotel security cameras and the like, was given by the Dubai police. Much, however, remains murky.

The victim was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, co-founder of the military wing of Hamas, the radical Islamic organisation that controls the Gaza Strip. What Mabhouh was doing in Dubai without security protection is not known. As someone well aware that he was a target for assassination from a variety of quarters, Mabhouh seldom ventured far from Damascus where he was heavily protected. It appears likely he was involved in arranging a further illicit shipment of weapons from Iran for Hamas's continuing attacks on Israel and for some reason felt secure travelling without guards. If this is the case, it is likely that Israeli intelligence seized the chance to carry out a strike that had probably been planned for some time.

Targeted assassinations, while often condemned by human rights groups, are a long-standing though little acknowledged feature of modern conflict. Soviet bloc countries routinely carried them out during the Cold War, Western agencies plotted them although seldom enacted them – or not that anyone has been able to prove. Israel has had no scruple about carrying them out, most notably to deal with the perpetrators of the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The Israelis plausibly argue that they are entirely legitimate as the only way to hit back at those who have murdered its citizens and who would otherwise escape scot-free.

Israel in this case has been embarrassed by the fact that it has used passports of the citizens of friendly countries in carrying out the plot, a tactic that is seen as politically illegitimate. A similar episode several years ago in which Israeli agents used faked New Zealand passports caused a deep frost in diplomatic relations that was only thawed when the Israelis apologised. Britain, Canada and Australia have expressed outrage about the latest episode and may yet do more. But even here all is not as it appears. Some reports have suggested that Britain, at least, was told in advance by Israel about the use of its citizens' passports in the operation.