Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, executed a Hamas flight engineer, Mohammed al-Zoari, in Tunisia several days ago. Almost from the moment he died, Tunisian journalists claimed the “hit” was carried out by Mossad. Yesterday, the government released an official statement confirming the claim of “foreign involvement,” which everyone knows refers to the agency’s assassination unit, Kidon.
The question is why? After days of trying to ascertain what in al Zoari’s work would’ve caused him to be such a danger to Israel I come up cold, with nothing. The best I can find is that he was moving his drone operations from Gaza to Tunisia because there would be more airspace unencumbered by Israeli surveillance, where he could test his drones.
On September 19th, Israel destroyed a drone off the Gaza coast. An Al Jazeera producer just told me there were reports in the past month of armed Palestinian drones. Perhaps this was one of al Zoari’s flight tests? Perhaps he was testing an armed drone? Who knows?
If the victim was working on armed drones, that wouldn’t be surprising. Israel has been assassinating Palestinian militants with them for years. One has to wonder if Israel can develop them, why can’t Arabs? Besides this, the Palestinian armed drone, if it exists, has never become operational. Never harmed a single Israeli. So al Zoari’s real threat to Israel was minimal, if at all.
Al Zoari’s brother allegedly told Al Jazeera that the murdered man was working on underwater drones at the time of his death. How an aeronautics specialist could switch to designing underwater drones is beyond me. The principles of propulsion and virtually everything else would appear entirely different (though I’m no expert in the subject). And again, even if this claim is true, there’s been no claim that Hamas has such weaponry or is capable of using it in an operational way.
At least in one way, Kidon has learned a lesson from the al-Mabouh catastrophe. It disabled CCTV monitoring at the crime scene so that the killers and the killing would not be recorded (though this claim has been disputed by Tunisian authorities). Presumably, they did this is other parts of the country where the killers might’ve been monitored. Meaning, this operation involved a vast amount of technical coördination and penetrating virtually the entire CCTV system in Tunisia (or at least the parts of it where the killers traveled). So in effect, al-Zoari was murdered so Mossad could test its operational prowess. A disgusting thought.
In the old days, nuclear-armed states used to carry out atomic tests on the ground or in the air. But now, with advanced engineering simulation techniques, they don’t have to do this. They can test weaponry in the lab. Unfortunately for al Zoari, the Mossad still operates the old-fashioned way. It has to murder poor shlubs like al-Zoari just to prove it can still do it.
Tunisia has also revealed a critical sub-plot to the main murder: the Mossad created a fake documentary film production which it claimed was associated with an Arab media company. Last June, it hired a Hungarian woman, brought her to Vienna, where she met her Mossad contact whose “cover” was a “news producer.” He tasked her to arrange to interview al Zoari for which she’d be paid 100 Euros per day. She did so and gave the film to her Mossad/news producer contact. He paid her 2,000 Euros for successfully completing her “mission.” Several months later, she was tasked to return to Tunisia, rent two cars and leave them in a specific location along with the keys in the car. She did so and left the country just before the killing (about which she knew nothing).
Two Tunisians living in Sweden also were recruited to the plot in a similar fashion and tasked with buying cell phones and SIM cards, and buying two additional cars and a house for the operation in Sfax, the town where al Zoari lived. They too seem innocent of anything worse than being props in the overall plot.
How in God’s name does Austria permit the Mossad to operate on its territory and plan international murder plots there?
Interestingly, at least one of the suspects Tunisian police have arrested for complicity in the plot is a leading member of Tunisia’s Jewish community. I don’t know if there is credible evidence against him or this is an attempt to prove that Tunisian Jews have colluded with the Israeli spy agency. It reeks of past blood libels perpetrated by Arab states against their Jewish citizens. But there is the distinct possibility that Mossad would commit such an atrocious act if it advanced their interests in killing al Zoari. Time will tell which is correct.
Here is my “take” on this latest murder: the last assassination carried out under Cohen’s watch was the murder of Omar Naef Zayed in Bulgaria earlier this year. In that case, a former militant who’d last engaged in an act of terror in the 1980s was murdered inside the Palestinian embassy in Sofia by Mossad killers. No one in the Mossad or Israeli government ever made any claim that this victim was an active terrorist.
I believe the hit involved a settling of scores of sorts between Cohen and Zayed. The latter escaped from Israel and made his way to Sofia, where he married and ran a small grocery store. Cohen was irked that this small fry got away from Israeli justice under his watch (he was a European theater chief for Mossad at the time of his escape). So his first goal on assuming the post of Mossad chief was to kill the one that got away.
Cohen’s second hit was an equally small fry, al Zoari. A man who, if he was a threat to Israel, was a marginal one at best. This raises the question: why would Mossad risk its reputation on killing people who pose a low-level threat? Hubris is at work here. The same sort of hubris which led Meir Dagan to approve the assassination of Mahmoud al Mabouh.
True, the Tunisian killing appears to have gone off, from Mossad’s point of view, without a hitch. But such success will encourage Cohen to take further chances. Eventually, his pride will lead him to make a terrible mistake (not that killing these men wasn’t such a mistake), because it will expose the seamy side of Israeli skullduggery to the world.
While I have great respect for Ronen Bergman, Yediot’s intelligence correspondent, I disagree with his assessment–that in order for this killing to be justified the target must have serious “value” for the Mossad. That is, he must be a genuine danger to Israel. In my personal estimation, he wasn’t.
But I do agree with this portion of his assessment:
There is also a symbolic value [in the assassination]: the Mossad conducts many operations. In contrast to the image it’s earned, it’s not an agency whose main purpose is to kill people. Nevertheless, there is nothing like such operations, if the Mossad was indeed responsible for it, to strengthen such a fearsome image.
In not a few instances, no less important than neutralizing the actual target is the message conveyed: that the enemies of Israel, whoever they may be–we will find and kill them. Over the course of time, these missions created a myth surrounding the Mossad: that of its “long outstretched arm,” and the reputation of an aggressive organization, lacking any mercy. Not bad for a spy agency whose mission is to deterrence [i.e. murder] no less than prevention.
With all my respect for him, only an Israeli or operative for a foreign spy agency could’ve written such a passage. The rest of us find such thinking not only invidious, but unbelievably cynical. The notion that killing a man not for what he personally and directly represents, but for what his murder means for your nation’s reputation, is heinous.
I have no doubt that Bergman is correct. After all, he’s proven he understands his intelligence sources quite well. In this, he is only conveying their thinking, which is what a good reporter does.
But the thought itself is depressing. It reminds me of this passage Josh Marshall wrote regarding a different historical context. He argued that recent scholarship about the origins of World War I found that Germany indeed wanted and provoked the war, at least in part because it felt that its Austro-Hungarian ally was gradually disintegrating into ethnic factionalism and strife. The Germans struck in 1914 because they felt time was running out and if they were to achieve their goals through war, they must do it quickly.
Marshall added this closing thought, which immediately brought Israel to mind (though of course as a liberal Zionist, that would be farthest from his mind):
The one lesson that shines through most vividly from these events a century ago is the immense danger caused when one power believes it is running out of time to secure the advantages it believes it can secure only or most easily through war…This pessimism, this need to provoke or escalate crises, is the root of all sorts of mischief. It is the best prism through which to understand the increasingly unstable moment we are now living through. Which countries if any want a general war? Which countries, if any, believe they can gain from one and at what cost? And how do we collectively prevent any major power from believing its interests can best be secured or only be secured by war?
What is the collective killing regime of the Mossad if not an expression of this nihilist philosophy? That Israel is running out of time due to the increasing power of its enemies. In order to deter them from achieving their interests, Israel must strike now and strike aggressively regardless of the long-term consequences.
Israel has proven time and again that it wants war, it incites war. War is a tool of state policy. It achieves the country’s goals of maintaining regional hegemony against all comers. The Mossad is a critical part of this war-making machine as it projects destructive Israeli power outside its territorial boundaries.
With the new posse coming to town in Washington, I fear that Israel will persuade Trump, Friedman & Co. that a “general war” in the Middle East against Iran or Hezbollah or any number of Islamist targets will advance U.S. interests as well. It would be a fool’s errand. But this election has taught many of us that there is nothing gained by underestimating Donald Trump’s capacity for knavery.