Style is Mossad, but not the tactics

Experts see work of foreign agents in identity thefts as those implicated fear for their safety.

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NAZARETH, ISRAEL // The assassination of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh last month in a Dubai hotel room had all the hallmarks of an operation by Israel's Mossad spy agency, Israeli experts agreed yesterday. But, as the names of seven of the 11 members of the hit squad were rapidly identified as belonging to Israeli citizens, all of whom claimed their identities had been stolen, commentators were divided on whether Mossad would have risked implicating Israeli nationals.

"The fact that so many Israeli citizens were quickly connected to the operation suggests either that the organisers demonstrated great idiocy or that this was not a Mossad operation," said Yaron Ezrahi, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. It would be the first time Mossad has been suspected of using its own citizens' identities in an operation. Rami Yigal, a former Mossad official, told Israeli army radio yesterday that, although the assassins were "professionals", Mossad would never have approved "apparent shortcuts, such as allowing members of the team to be videotaped by security cameras".

Yossi Melman, a security reporter for the daily Haaretz newspaper, however, noted a familiar Mossad style to the operation. The use of British and Irish passports by most of the squad, he wrote, point to a familiar "modus operandi in which Israel was forced to use foreign passports for operations involving assassinations of enemy targets". It emerged yesterday that six of the suspected assassins who arrived in Dubai on British passports were using the names of dual British and Israeli nationals. A seventh, who was travelling on a German passport, had adopted the name of Michael Bodenheimer, an American-Israeli. Three other members of the team, including a woman, used forged Irish passports, and one was on a French passport. The team may have comprised a further six, so far unidentified people.

Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, broke the official silence yesterday, but only to refuse to confirm or deny Israeli involvement, saying that Israel preferred "a policy of ambiguity". Mr Lieberman also hinted that Israel might have been framed for the killing. "There is no reason to think that it was the Israeli Mossad and not some other intelligence service or country up to some mischief," he told reporters.

Similarly, Rafi Eitan, a former government minister and Mossad agent who took part in the capture of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, said: "It means some foreign service, an enemy of Israel, wanted to taint Israel." The Israelis whose names were used by the assassination squad claimed to have had their identities stolen, and expressed fear that they might be targeted in retaliation. Paul Keeley, 42, a builder and father-of-three from Nahsholim, a quiet kibbutz on Israel's northern coast, said: "I'm worried for my family. The fact that it was my name that was published in this context makes me worry that someone will try to harm us."

Another British-Israeli, Stephen Hodes, told Israel's Channel 2 TV: "I haven't left the country in about two years, and I've never been to Dubai. I don't know who was behind this. It's just scary, because powerful forces are involved in this." Mevlyn Mildiner, 31, from Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, said he was recovering from pneumonia when his name appeared in the media. "I have no idea how to clear my name. Interpol has a warrant out for my arrest. I don't know how I will travel. I went to bed with pneumonia and woke up a 'murderer'."

Ben Caspit, in the populist Ma'ariv newspaper, called Mabhouh's killing "a strategic failure". He wrote: "When it becomes apparent that the passports belong to innocent Israeli citizens, who will now be subject to an international manhunt by Interpol, the embarrassment is great." Analysts were left wondering why Israel would have risked so much to kill al Mabhouh, a founder of Hamas's military wing whose notoriety dates back to 1989 when he killed two off-duty soldiers by dressing as an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

Mr Ezrahi said Israel was sending two messages to Hamas: "That we can reach any of your leaders at any time, and that we have the power to disrupt your plans before they can be crystallised." He added that, according to his contacts in the Israeli security service, the policy was achieving its goal of destabilising Hamas. "There is great anxiety among the leadership and a lack of confidence. That is the distinguishing mark of disorganisation."

Observers noted that there were several indications of Mossad involvement. Mr Melman, who has close contacts with the Mossad, reported two weeks ago, when the news of al Mabhouh's killing emerged, that the agency had had the Hamas leader "in its sights" and that its intelligence was "reliable and accurate". He also noted the "smiles" on government ministers' faces as they left a cabinet meeting where they heard the news.

Mr Ezrahi added that, unusually, Eli Yishai, the interior minister, had been reprimanded at that time after he appeared to boast of Mossad's involvement.