“Gentlemen, start your engines” is an ominous phrase for targeted political figures fearing that action might be their last. Yesterday in Damascus, a Hamas operative, Ezzedine al-Sheik Khalil, had just started driving his SUV when his mobile telephone rang, apparently triggering a bomb explosion that killed him. On Monday the Middle Eastern press looked at the implications of the attack, which required reopening back issues of newspapers to place the killing in some context.
The media’s first errand was to try figuring out who the largely unknown Khalil was. Several newspapers and television stations remembered him as one of around 400 Hamas activists expelled to Lebanon by Israel in 1992. At the time, the forlorn group, whose leading figure was Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the Hamas leader assassinated last April by Israel, found itself stranded for months in a no-man’s land between Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon and territory controlled by the Lebanese government. According to the London-based, Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Khalil, unlike his comrades, was not allowed to return to Palestinian areas (several Arab media sources said he had chosen not to return) when a settlement to the expulsion was negotiated. According to the Al Jazeera satellite television station, citing a statement by the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam batallions, Khalil was also a founding member of Hamas.
That Israel was behind his death was obvious, and the Israeli daily Ha’aretz made no bones about it: “Security sources acknowledged Sunday that Israel was involved in the assassination.” The Jerusalem Post quoted Israeli security sources as saying that “Hamas in Damascus was increasingly involved in guiding, funding, and directing Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” But the assassination was as much a warning to Syria that it remained vulnerable to Israeli harassment, and Damascus may have started listening: The paper seemed to lend credence to reports, echoed by Palestinian sources, that senior Hamas leaders in Damascus, namely Khaled Mashaal (widely believed to be the party’s overall leader) and his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouq had, “at the urging of the Syrian government, fled Syria.”
The killing was also plainly an effort by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to hit Hamas hard before Israel’s planned pullout from the Gaza Strip next year—an occasion the group is likely to play up as a military victory. (Not coincidentally, yesterday Sharon presented his cabinet with a draft bill on the Gaza pullout, even as his forces raided Palestinian targets in the south of the strip.)
More intriguing was the dissonance in the reaction of Hamas. From Gaza, Ezzedine al-Qassam vowed to widen its attacks against Israelis to include areas outside Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. However, the London-based Al-Hayat reported that a member of the party’s political bureau, Muhammad Nazzal, had told the paper: “There is no change in Hamas’ policy of limiting the fight to the interior; any change in this strategy requires study and time.” This attitude was echoed by Hamas’ representative in Beirut, Osama Hamdan. According to the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, Hamdan “denied [that] any decisions have been made to strike Jewish or Israeli targets abroad.” Ha’aretz observed: “[T]he conflicting statements were indicative of the internal debate inside Hamas about its policy regarding foreign attacks. [While some officials are] in favor of foreign attacks, most of the leadership … want to stick to the policy set by Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, who narrowed the Hamas conflict with Israel to the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.”
Several news reports harked back to an article in Al-Hayat on Friday (an English summary of which is here), written by the paper’s Damascus correspondent, that was headlined, “Israel Receives an Arab ‘File’ on the External Hamas Leadership.” The story, citing “Arabic sources in a European capital,” suggested that an unidentified Arabic intelligence service had provided Israel’s Mossad with a “complete file” on Hamas operatives and leaders living abroad. It specified that the Mossad “requested the file after the dual [suicide attacks] in Beersheba last month” and that the documents were delivered “only three days after an official request was presented by Mossad director Meir Dagan.”
If the story is true (and there are signs that the tip-off to Al-Hayat may have come from a Syrian intelligence service), then which Arab intelligence service was it? One unlikely version is that it was, in fact, the Syrians. However, Israel could not have issued an official request to Syria, nor would such an insinuation have been made in an article filed from Damascus. That leaves the Egyptian, the Jordanian, and possibly the Qatari services, whose governments have normal relations with Israel and who could be expected to follow up closely on Hamas. An educated guess—and it’s only that—would probably lead us to Cairo. Like Qatar, Egypt has harbored, or harbors, Hamas officials, so it has the detailed information on their lifestyle mentioned in the article (including their eating, drinking, and cleaning habits). But unlike Qatar, Egypt has a more convincing motive: It has repeatedly seen its efforts to mediate between the divided Palestinian factions scuttled by Hamas suicide attacks. Was the handover of the file an effort to warn Hamas to be more careful in the future? The theory is as good as any other.
It may also offer a backdrop to this interesting tidbit from Ha’aretz on Monday: the announcement that Egypt’s intelligence chief had canceled a visit to Israel scheduled for tomorrow. This was “unrelated to the Sunday assassination of a Hamas leader in Syria,” Israeli officials insisted. Perhaps it was, perhaps it was.