Mossad's failed hit and the rise of Hamas
On a September morning in 1997 on the streets of Jordan's capital, Amman, Mossad agents attempted to assassinate Hamas leader, Khalid Mishal. Actions by Khalid's bodyguard led to the capture of two of the assassins - and their identity as Mossad agents - was flashed around the world. As the only Arab country with relations with Israel, Jordan was viewed with suspicion by both its neighbours as well as many of its residents. If Khalid died, what would happen to King Hussein? This international crisis could only be averted by keeping Khalid alive - and that required the frantic intervention of the USA and the direct involvement of President Clinton. Now, read on: The Canadians arrived on different flights from different cities. Young, fit, and well dressed, they looked the part - Westerners with deep pockets dropping in to see Jordan's jewels ... wondrous Nabatean ruins at Petra; stunning Roman relics at Jerash; and the desert wilds of Wadi Rum, where David Lean and Peter O'Toole created the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. If there was time, perhaps a beachside party at Aqaba on the Red Sea.
In September 1997, in the madness of the Middle East, Jordan was a pocket of relative peace. Usually a few tourists bobbed up among the suited foreign-business and white-robed-Arab traffic at Amman's Queen Alia Airport and the Canadians were quickly swallowed by the anonymous chaos of the arrivals hall. Immigration officials perfunctorily stamped their passports; an hour later, all five were downtown, piling out of a couple of battered taxis in the paved forecourt of the Intercontinental Hotel. Checking in, they again presented Canadian papers and chatted easily with a desk clerk about which of the tourist attractions were within easy striking distance of Amman.
Only later, when all assembled in one of their rooms, did they abandon the pretense. These "Canadian tourists" were agents for Mossad, the fabled Israeli intelligence service. Their mission in this quiet, US-friendly Arab city - state-sanctioned assassination - in the name of Israel.
With the door chained from the inside, they dropped the phony accents and spoke in their own language. Unpacking their gear, they sat for one last time methodically rehearsing the deadly detail and schedule for the coming days. They ignored the minibar. But, instinctively cautious in a part of the world where selected guests were assigned rooms expensively rigged for others to eavesdrop, they turned up the volume on the TV.
A glass-topped coffee table became a workbench on which they spread the essentials of death. A street map of Amman, with hand-drawn circles on a west-side business district. Photographs of their intended victim, who was a forty-something Arab male-lean, round faced, and bearded. Few in Jordan, or Israel, would have recognized him. Oddly, there was a small camera too.
A practiced nonchalance masked caution and anxiety in all five of them. One of the men - blond and bearded - handled the camera with a care and respect that went way beyond any ordinary tourist's concern for holiday snapshots. The camera, in fact, was the killers' "gun". One of his colleagues produced a pouch, from which he extracted a small and seemingly innocuous bottle that had been brought into the country separately and delivered to them at the hotel by a secret courier. It contained a small quantity of a clear liquid - Mossad's "bullet". This was a chemically modified version of fentanyl, a widely used painkiller. But in this potent, altered form it would kill within forty-eight hours, leaving no trace for discovery on the autopsy table. Their plan was murder - silent, unseen.
In the privacy of another room in the same hotel, a handsome brunette opened a small makeup bag to assure herself yet again that one bottle in particular had traveled well. She was the Mossad men's insurance policy. Her inclusion in the plot was most unusual, but so lethal was the drug the agents would be using for the first time that Mossad's mission planners had demanded the presence of a doctor and an antidote in case one of the team accidentally exposed himself to the poison.
Their orders were to kill Khalid Mishal. The forty-one-year-old Palestinian activist had been overlooked by the legion of foreign intelligence agents operating in Amman. But at the Mossad bunker near Tel Aviv, Mishal was seen as the first of a dangerous new breed of fundamentalist leaders. He was hard-line, but he did not wear a scraggy beard or wrap himself in robes. Mishal wore a suit and, as the man accused by Israel of orchestrating a new rash of suicide bombs, he was, by regional standards, coherent in his television appearances. From the Israeli perspective Khalid Mishal was too credible as an emerging leader of Hamas, persuasive even. He had to be taken out.
They struck on Thursday, September 25 1997. It was just after 10 a.m. and they botched everything. Had they been successful, Mishal would have gone home and died quietly; the agents would have been on their way home too, over the Allenby Bridge on the Jordan River and back in Jerusalem for a celebratory lunch. Instead, two of the Israelis were soon languishing in dank cells under an Amman security complex and the others were hunkering at the Israeli Embassy - which, incredibly for a supposedly friendly foreign mission, was locked down by a menacing cordon of Jordanian troops.
King Hussein of Jordan could rise to the occasion in a crisis. Filled with rage, he fired a shot across the Israeli prime minister's bow, warning Benjamin Netanyahu that his Mossad men would hang if Mishal died. More deliberately, Hussein then picked up a phone and placed a call. It was answered across the world, where a woman with a sweet voice answered: "Good morning. Welcome to the White House"...
Israel was going backward in two wars - militarily in Lebanon and economically at home - when the technocratic Shimon Peres became prime minister in September 1984. Israe1's ill-judged invasion of its northern neighbor in 1982 had cost the lives of almost seven hundred Israeli troops and pushed the country's ailing economy to the brink ...
Gaza was a brutalized society even before Israel seized the Strip in the 1967 war. Previously under the control of deeply suspicious authorities in Cairo, its fundamentalists had suffered the same crackdown as their Muslim Brotherhood confreres in Egypt; this meant that the activists Israel had inherited were seasoned underground operators. Chief among them was an unlikely revolutionary - the crippled and wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.
In 1965, Yassin had been jailed as a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer after yet another roundup by Egyptian intelligence. Now, as a refugee amidst the unrelenting squalor of Gaza, he regarded the Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories as no ordinary occupation. This, he believed, was a determined Israeli effort to completely obliterate the Palestinian sense of identity. Nevertheless, Yassin saw an opening he could exploit, enabling him to spread the Islamist creed. As long as he moved quietly, Israel would not block his activities.
As explained by Shalom Harari, a senior Arabist with the occupation authorities in Gaza, Israel's position was based on the historical thinking of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. "The Islamists were okay as long as they were not shooting and bombing; as long as there were no disturbances. Dayan said we have to treat Islam as we treat Christianity' ...
Yassin's message found fertile minds as he worked the mosques of the refugee camps. 'At school and university we all were obsessed with Nasser's belief in Arab nationalism," recalled an early disciple of Yassin's, who was struck by the simplicity and surprising humor of the crippled preacher's language. "He spoke of the shameful defeat of the Arabs by such a tiny state. In the camps he spoke to crowds of one hundred, maybe two hundred. Some of us worked those crowds, seeking out the bright, intelligent ones, who we invited to smaller gatherings in private homes" ...
In 1973, Israel allowed Yassin to set up an umbrella for all Brotherhood activities in Gaza - the Islamic Center, or Mujamma' Al-Islami. This was a one-stop Islamist shop-mosque, clinic, kindergarten, festival hall, training, center for women and girls, and headquarters for the powerful zakat (alms) committee, which managed local and foreign donations. And it capitalized on a steady Islamic reawakening in the Occupied Territories. In the twenty years following the Six-Day War, the number of mosques in the West Bank doubled to 750; in Gaza they trebled to 600, nearly 40 per cent of which would be controlled by Yassin's Islamic Center ...
The Israelis blocked Fatah and PLO community initiatives. But Yassin's Islamists were granted official approval for what actually was the early infrastructure of a state-within-a-state - schools and clinics, mosques, charities and community centers, all of which evolved into a vast Islamist network, through which political tracts and guidance were distributed.
The ideological gulf between the Muslim Brotherhood and the PLO was not over jihad itself, but over a question of timing. Arafat and the other PLO factional leadership had opted for shooting their way back into Palestine as early as the late 1950s. But Yassin held rigidly to a Brotherhood belief that liberation could be achieved only as a sequel to a long and serious program of ideological, spiritual, and psychological re-education. In short, as he saw it, it was the banner of lslam that had driven the Crusaders from holy Jerusalem in the twelfth century in the face of repeated secular Arab failure, the same spirit was needed in the late twentieth century...
The Israelis utterly misread the situation. In the mistaken belief that Yassin's organisation would undermine what had been near-monolithic support for the secular and nationalist credo of the PLO, they allowed the sheikh's operation to prosper. Claims by the secular Palestinian factions that Israel was actually funding the lslamists were vehemently denied, but in the mid-1980s the Israeli military governor of Gaza, Brigadier General Yitzhak Segev, would describe a deliberate strategy to boost the Islamists at the expense of the PLO and the Palestinian Communists: "The Israeli government gives me a budget and the military government gives it to the mosques."
In June 1982, Ariel Sharon, Israel's bullish defense chief, had sent a military blitzkrieg northward into Lebanon, setting the scene for a grueling eighty-eight day siege of the PLO in Beirut. ln the end, Washington brokered a safe-passage deal, under which Arafat's headquarters staff of about two thousand was evacuated to Tunis more than twelve hundred miles away on the North African coast, and more than ten thousand of his fighters were dispersed to seven different Arab countries ...
With Arafat's eviction from Beirut, his demoralized Fatah and nationalist supporters were being held on a tight leash by the Israelis. But there was a new Islamist dynamism - with women covering up, men growing beards, new mosques everywhere, and even an Islamic university ...
As the assassins were using Canadian passports, Ottawa wanted to make it clear to Jordan they were not complicit in this violation of Jordanian sovereignty. Finally the Canadian diplomat Steve Bennett got access to the two assassins in custody.
Bennett was allowed to view them one at a time. Both refused to disclose their identities, which the registration book at the Intercon had recorded as Shawn Kendall, twenty-eight, the blond assailant of Mishal, and Barry Beads, thirty-six, his darker accomplice. Their details were among those of three other Canadian passport holders who had checked in to the hotel at the same time. The two spoke with strong Israeli accents but, after listening for a time, Bennett concluded that one had learned his English in Australia.
Watched by bemused Jordanian guards, Bennett then subjected each man in turn to his unique test of Canadian-ness. Could he name a street in Canada where he had lived as a child, or a town in which he went to school. Perhaps he could name one of his teachers? No, they each replied. On the basics of Canadian geography, they knew nothing. They had an equally disappointing knowledge of Canadian sport. Four years earlier, the Toronto Blue Jays had caused a heartstopping sensation by defeating all comers in the United States to win back-to-back World Series titles. It was said, even the dead in the cemeteries of Canada sat up to celebrate. Now these supposed Canadian true-bloods stared blankly at Bennett asking "The Blue whats?"
Perhaps his last question was cruel, but the diplomat was to nail this down. He asked them to sing a few bars of 'O Canada', the national anthem. Bennett helpfully hummed the opening line: "0 Canada! Our home and native land ..." After their failure to join in, he was satisfied that both men were impostors.
Any embarrassment for Ottawa was the least of Benjamin Netanyahu's worries. The twenty-four hours just past had been among the worst in his turbulent career, and he knew that by the time this crisis was over, his prime ministership too might be finished.
This is an extract from Kill Khalid: Mossad's failed hit ... and the rise of Hamas by Paul McGeough, which is published by Allen & Unwin (2009: $38.99). Reproduced with kind permission of the author and publisher. Read the reviews by Antony Loewenstein and Greg Myre (Washington Post).
McGeough, Paul, 'Kill Khalid', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 2009.<https://evatt.org.au/kill-khalid>