The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai poses a whole lot of riddles, as these things usually do. Al-Mabhouh was basically an arms’ dealer, that is to say, in an unlovely profession. He was a senior Hamas member, that is to say, a terrorist in unlovely company. He seems to have been in Dubai on his way to conclude a deal with Iran for arms destined to be smuggled into Gaza on behalf of Hamas. That certainly gave Israel an inducement to take him out. In addition, he is accused of being responsible for the murder of two Israelis, and those who commit terrorist acts of that kind are themselves killed by Israeli agents if this is feasible. So a finger points at Mossad, the Israeli secret service to which the rest of the world attributes legendary powers. Israeli media are indeed guessing that this is a Mossad operation, and, if so, Mossad got their man.
But there are counter-indications. The undercover squad was reported to have been eleven strong, and later seventeen. Such numbers are quite unnecessary and could only have maximized the danger of being caught. They traveled on foreign passports that had been tampered with, therefore bound to lead to high-level diplomatic ructions. They are further reported as wearing wigs and false beards, the equipment of 19th-century spies and easily detectable. Closed-circuit television cameras in the hotel where the assassination took place captured images of them all. Could Mossad really have risked such a mission in the certainty of its operatives being filmed? You would also expect them to be reasonably young and athletic, but the pictures show some portly gentlemen, rather absurd in shorts and carrying tennis rackets — more 19th-century disguise.
Fatah has almost as great an interest as Israel in seeing that Hamas does not acquire yet more Iranian arms that might well be used to oust Fatah from the West Bank. Jordan has arrested two Palestinians and extradited them to Dubai. Are they Fatah agents? Surely Israel could never have relied on Palestinians not to betray them in an affair as dangerous as this? Also, the Syrian branch of Hamas might have a score to settle with the Gaza branch, and that’s what these two Palestinians were employed for.
If all this proves to be speculation in the heat of the moment, and that huge squad with false beards and wigs and tennis rackets showing themselves openly on camera really were Israeli agents, then Mossad was immeasurably lucky to get away with it, and badly needs to sharpen its act. A thriller-writer, however, might raise the possibility that Mossad did it in this extraordinary way in order to frame Fatah. That would make it a class act, after all.