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Hitch your wagon to a star

Paul McGeough 'Kill Khaled' tells of Mossad's attempt to assassinate Mishal, and Hamas's rise

Paul McGeough is the former executive editor of Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald and the author of three books on the Middle East. He has twice been named Australian Journalist of the Year and in 2002 was awarded the Johns Hopkins University–based SAIS Novartis Prize for excellence in international journalism. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Susannah Tarbush: “Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas”
English original of article published in Arabic translation in Al-Hayat, May 18 2009.

The Israeli intelligence service Mossad has always been keen to foster a reputation as a ruthlessly efficient information gathering and killing machine, whose agents freely roam the Middle East and wider world targeting Israeli’s enemies with ruthlessness and deadly accuracy.

But alongside Mossad’s successes, its history is also littered with blunders and miscalculations. And one of its biggest blunders of all time was the audacious attempt of September 25 1997 to use poison to assassinate a leading Hamas official, Khalid Mishal, in the Jordanian capital Amman.

The book “Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas” gives a detailed account of the assassination attempt and of the intricate negotiations that led to a deal under which Israel would supply the antidote to the Mossad poison and would release Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The book was published recently in the US by New Press, in the UK by Quartet – owned by the Palestine-born publisher and entrepreneur Naim Attallah – and in Australia by Allen and Unwin. The author of the book Paul McGeough [pictured below], born in Ireland, is a prizewinning journalist who lives in Sydney and was at one time editor of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

While the central event of the book is the assassination attempt, its scope ranges widely in time and it tells the story of Mishal’s political life and of the development of Hamas over the years. The book is topical given the current debate among Western policymakers over the need to engage Hamas if there is to be a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. There have been signs of a possible cautious shift, under certain conditions, in US policy by the administration of President Barack Obama.

At the same time Binyahim Netanyahu, who was Israeli prime minister at the time of the assassination attempt, is once more in that position, heading a hard-line government. He is again confronting the man he wanted dead 12 years ago, but Hamas and Mishal are now stronger than they were then.

During his research for the book, McGeough conducted interviews with numerous key players and observers of the Middle East crisis in six countries in 2007 and early 2008. His 477-page work is written in a lively, highly readable fashion.

In the assassination plot, which sounds like something from a James Bond film, a team of Mossad agents flew to Amman from different capitals masquerading as tourists. They planned to poison Mishal with a substance that was lethal but relatively slow-acting. Mishal would die over a period of 48 hours while the team of Mossad assassins slipped out of Jordan.

The poison was to be administered by a small “camera” which served as a “gun” with a “bullet” of a clear liquid, the poison levofentanyl - a modified version of the widely-used painkiller fentanyl. The team of agents included a woman doctor carrying the antidote to the poison. This was because the poison was so lethal that Mossad’s planners had demanded that a doctor be present with an antidote in case one of the Mossad team accidentally exposed himself to the poison.

The then head of Mossad Danny Yatom assured Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that nothing could go wrong with the plan. But in fact things went very wrong for Mossad. Although one of the agents succeeded in administering the poison to Mishal’s ear in an Amman street, the agent and an accomplice were chased by one of Mishal’s bodyguards, Mohammad Abu Sayf. Abu Sayf had a bloody fight with the two agents, and was then helped by Saad Na’im Khatib, an officer in Palestine Liberation Army who happened to be passing in a taxi. Abu Sayf and Khatib captured the two Mossad men and handed them over to the Jordanian police. Another four agents in the team fled to the Israeli embassy “which, incredibly for a supposedly friendly foreign mission, was locked down by a menacing cordon of Jordanian troops.”

News of the strange attack on Mishal was first broken to the outside world by the Lebanese journalist Randa Habib, bureau chief in Amman for Agence France Presse. She was telephoned by Mohammad Nazzal, a Hamas press aide, who said that Mishal had been the victim of an assassination attempt by an attacker using “a bizarre instrument”. She then spoke to Mishal himself, who told her of a “whispering” sound in his ear when he was attacked. In the following hours, as the poison started to take effect, Mishal fell into a coma. He would die unless an antidote was administered.

King Hussein was enraged by the assassination attempt on Jordanian soil and warned Netanyahu that if Mishal died, the Mossad men would be hung. Jordan had signed a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994, and King Hussein felt utterly betrayed by the assassination attempt. He had developed relations with Israeli politicians and with the intelligence apparatus, for example hosting Danny Yatom at his summer palace in Aqaba, but Mossad had given the Jordanians no hint as to what it was planning.

The king suspected that the assassination of Mishal had two aims: to make it impossible to rescue the now comatose Oslo peace process, and to destabilise the Hashemite dynasty, perhaps in preparation for a new Palestinian state in Jordan.

A major crisis erupted involving Jordan, Israel, the US and Canada. King Hussein contacted US President Bill Clinton as part of efforts to force Netanyahu to hand over the antidote that would save Mishal’s life. McGeough gives a thorough account of the negotiations, telephone calls and face to face meetings through the long hours that followed. A key Jordanian figure in the unfolding events was Samih Batikhi, the then chief of the General Intelligence Department.

The Canadians for their part were angered over the use of Canadian passports by those involved in the assassination attempt and demanded explanations from Israel. This was not the first time that Mossad agents were discovered to have used Canadian passports during an operation, nor would it be the last.

Israel’s envoy to the EU Efraim Halevy, former deputy director of Mossad, had developed a close personal bond with Hussein over the years and he was recalled from Brussels to help deal with the crisis. Halevy pushed for the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, who had been serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison since 1989.

Halevy argued that without Israel making such a weighty gesture, Hussein would be written off as a collaborator with Israel. Netanyahu at first refused, but he came under pressure from the Jordanians, Canadians and Americans to not only hand over the formula of the poison, and the antidote, but also to release Sheikh Yassin “in order to save a peace process he might have preferred to sink”.

According to McGeough, at the time of the attempted assassination, Mishal “had been overlooked by the legion of foreign intelligence agents operation in Amman”. Nor had the US ambassador Wesley Egan previously known who he was. “Who the hell is Khalid Mishal the ambassador asked the CIA Amman station chief Dave Manners after meeting King Hussein to discuss the crisis.

Why did Mossad choose Mishal as its assassination target? He was accused by Israel of orchestrating a new rash of suicide bombings in Israel. “At the Mossad bunker in Tel Aviv he 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 “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.”

McGeough examines the impact of the assassination attempt on Mishal. “Khalid Mishal emerged as a changed man from his brush with death. He saw himself in a very different light, and so did the movement’s members. Overnight he had become a household name – for Palestinians, Israelis and the whole Arab world.” The gross miscalculations by Netanyahu and Yatom had “effectively anointed Mishal the leader of the future.”

One theme running through the book is the rivalry between Mishal and his long-standing rival Mousa Abu Marzook, who is now his deputy in Damascus. Abu Marzook was born in a refugee camp in Gaza and was from an early age a committed Islamist activist and disciple of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He had played a key role in the US raising funds particularly for the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation.

McGeough differentiates the group around Mishal, known internally as the “Kuwaitis”, from the group around Abu Marzook, who were mostly Gazans. Mishal says that as a young man living in Kuwait he laid in place the infrastructure of Hamas, and this was “done in parallel with the West Bank and Gaza”. After Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2 1990 Mishal, who was on holiday in Amman, returned to Kuwait because he did not want the Iraqis to find Hamas’s headquarters. He destroyed files, and took others to Amman, which quickly became a Hamas hub. McGeough looks at the different versions of the birth of Hamas, and at the way in which Israel encouraged Hamas’s activities in Gaza in its formative years as a counterweight to Fatah.

In a chapter entitled “The bearded engineer in a New York cell”, McGeough tells of how Abu Marzook was arrested at John F Kennedy International Airport in New in July 1995. Israel subsequently sought his extradition, but Abu Marzook was released to King Hussein in Jordan in February 1997. In his absence, Mishal had been elected to lead the political bureau and he did not step aside on Abu Marzook’s return.

The Amman-based journalist Ranya Kadri told McGeough: “The day they tried to kill him was the day Mishal the leader was born. The man who died that day was Abu Marzook. Nobody wanted to talk to Abu Marzook after that – it was Mishal, Mishal, Mishal.”

Mishal was born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956. In the June 1967 war Mishal and his family fled to Jordan. His father was at the time working in Kuwait, where he had taken his younger second wife, and Khalid joined him there.

One of those McGeough interviewed for his book was Asad Abdul Rahman, the Palestinian academic and senior PLO figure who was at one time an adviser to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Abdul Rahman was a professor at Kuwait University when Mishal went there in 1974 to study physics. Mishal joined Abdul Rahman’s class on Palestinian history. He had a woolly beard and Abdul Rahman concluded, correctly, that he was with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite their profound political differences, Abdul-Rahman was deeply impressed with Mishal and rated him as his brightest student ever. “There are lots of B-pluses and Bs in social science. He was my only A-student in nineteen years of teaching.”

Many years later, Abdul-Rahman on a visit to Damascus warned Mishal: “You can’t be a Muslim fanatic and, at the same time, be a politician...especially in a modern world with gigantic enemies – the US globally, Israel regionally!” Abdul-Rahman maintained it was time for the Islamists to publicly accept the existence of the state of Israel. “You have to decide, you can’t be half pregnant. Either you want to engage in the peace process or not, and if you don’t, there is a price to pay.”

The final chapter of McGeough’s book describes his meeting and interviews with Mishal himself, in conditions of tight security, at Mishal’s headquarters in Damascus in the two months from September 2 2007.

Since completing his book, McGeough has had a further meeting with Mishal, in mid-March this year. He wrote about this meeting in a New York Times article of April 13 under the headline “Hamas comes out of hiding”. He noted that compared with his first meeting with Mishal 18 months earlier, the mood was much lighter in the Hamas hideout. “Mr Mishal’s calendar is so full that he might soon need a parking lot for the vehicles bringing foreign delegations to visit.” His visit to Mishal in March was “pushed far into the night because Mr Mishal was busy greeting a group of Greek lawmakers, who were then followed by an Italian delegation.” In the preceding days the Hamas leader had met visitors from the British and European parliaments.

When McGeough asked Mishal about policy changes that Hamas might make as a gesture to any new order following the new Obama policy, Mishal argued that the organisation had already shifted on some key points. “Hamas has already changed – we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections.” But when McGeough asked him about rewriting the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, he was unbending and said “Not a chance”.

McGeough wrote that “while it is impossible for many in the West to grasp the calculus in the Hamas strategy of war and terror the movement has demonstrated that it is disciplined in holding its fire, as it did in the summer and fall of 2008. Likewise, it has proved itself capable of negotiating with Israel – albeit through third parties.”

A leading international correspondent reconstructs the pivotal moment in the rise of Hamas—a page-turning narrative reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal
[It was] all very James Bond. One country needs the antidote held by another, to treat an illness it doesn’t understand. The clock’s ticking . . . so the king calls the White House. —ROBERT MALLEY, FORMER SENIOR CLINTON ADMINISTRATION ADVISER
Little public notice was taken of a 1997 attempt on the life of the Hamas leader Khalid Mishal by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency—even though the audacious hit took place in broad daylight in the streets of Amman, and even though the bungled poisoning immediately set into motion a flurry of international diplomacy, culminating in the direct intervention of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.

A series of tense, high-level negotiations saved Mishal’s life, as the Israelis reluctantly handed over the antidote. But Hamas was saved as well. With his new lease on life, Khalid Mishal became—and remains—the architect of the Hamas organization’s phenomenal ascendancy in the intervening decade. Mishal orchestrated the deadly bombings on targets in Israel and, from his bunker in exile in the Syrian capital of Damascus, continues to pull in donations and support from the Islamic world while directing Hamas’s vital social welfare programs.

In a headlong narrative—with high-speed car chases, negotiated prisoner exchanges, and an international scandal that threatened to destabilize the entire region—acclaimed reporter Paul McGeough uses unprecedented, extensive interviews with Khalid Mishal himself and the key players in Amman, Jerusalem, and Washington to tell the definitive, inside story of the rise of Hamas.

Hard Cover Online is avialable on the URL:

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