Monday, February 1, 2010

JERUSALEM | Days after Hamas accused Israel of electrocuting and poisoning one of its commanders in his Dubai hotel room, Israel claimed Sunday that the dead man played a critical role in smuggling rockets from Iran to Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Though Israel has not acknowledged any role in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh on Jan. 20, it was one of several mysterious deaths of Arab militants attributed to Israel’s Mossad spy agency over the years.

Relatives and Hamas officials said Mr. al-Mabhouh was electrocuted and poisoned, perhaps by having his face smothered with a poison-soaked cloth. Despite surviving what his family says were several earlier attempts on his life, he had traveled without bodyguards to avoid drawing attention.

Hamas, which blamed Israel and has vowed to avenge Mr. al-Mabhouh’s death, released photos Sunday showing that however he was killed, it was brutal enough to leave bruises and red splotches on his face and nose.

Hamas has been quiet about the reason for Mr. al-Mabhouh’s travels, though a brother says he was on a mission for the militant group. One senior Hamas figure, Osama Hamdan, denied Mr. al-Mabhouh was on a special assignment or that he was planning to head on from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to Iran.

Israeli defense officials said Mr. al-Mabhouh was key to smuggling Iranian arms to Gaza, in particular rockets that could fly as far as the metropolis Tel Aviv, some 40 miles to the north.

Several rockets fired during the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza last winter hit cities as far as 25 miles away.

The officials said Mr. al-Mabhouh was also suspected in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential intelligence assessments.

The Mossad does not comment on its operations, but many of the details resemble past strikes attributed to the spy agency.

One of the Mossad’s most high-profile failures bore similarities: In 1997, its agents were caught poisoning the militant group’s leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Jordan. Israel was forced to send an antidote that saved Mr. Mashaal’s life and release Hamas’ spiritual leader from an Israeli prison.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was also the prime minister at the time. Today, Mr. Mashaal is Hamas’ supreme leader.

Iran has long been suspected of supplying weapons to Hamas, which smuggles supplies in through hundreds of tunnels snaking under Gaza’s sealed border with Egypt.

Iran has acknowledged bankrolling Hamas but has never admitted arming the militant group, which wrested control of Gaza in June 2007. Israel is convinced Tehran has become a main pipeline for arms to Gaza.

Mr. al-Mabhouh’s brother, Hussein, who lives in Gaza, said he was told by Hamas officials that security cameras in the hotel filmed two suspects outside his hotel room.

The brother said the slain Hamas leader, who lived in Syria with his family, frequently traveled to Dubai for the militant group. He said Mr. al-Mabhouh survived several assassination attempts, one in 1989, another two years ago in Beirut, where a poisoning attempt left him comatose for 36 hours. In neighboring Syria, a bomb was found under a car he was meant to enter.

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