- November 27, 2023
- Ahron Bregman
- Themes: Israel
Israel's foreign intelligence service has played a crucial role at key moments in the country's history. In the coming months, it may target Hamas operatives both in Gaza and further afield.
In the current war in Gaza, ‘Israel’s Central Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations’ – or ‘Mossad’ – is destined to play a critical role, particularly, in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration, in a press conference, that he has instructed Mossad ‘to target the heads of Hamas wherever they may be’. To ‘target’ means to kill them. ‘Wherever they may be’ is a reference to those Hamas leaders who reside and operate outside of the Gaza Strip, mainly in Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey. Netanyahu’s bold words were reinforced by his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who stated that all Hamas leaders are ‘walking dead…. they are living on borrowed time’, and that: ‘The struggle is worldwide: From gunman in the field [in Gaza] to those living abroad.’ To be sure, it is unlikely that Hamas leaders in Qatar and elsewhere, were even consulted ahead of the brutal 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, but Israel regards them as part of the Hamas machine and, as such, considers them legitimate targets. The body that will turn Netanyahu’s words into an action plan is Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, responsible for intelligence collection, analysis, and covert operations, notably assassinations.
The state of Israel was born in May 1948 and, to protect it, externally and internally, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) came into being, along with three Intelligence agencies: AMAN, in charge of military intelligence; Shin Bet, tasked with internal security; and Mossad, which reports directly to the Israeli prime minister. It is estimated that around 7,000 individuals serve, directly and indirectly, in Mossad, making it one of the largest intelligence organisations in the world.
It is organised into several divisions, of which the following are most important: Tzomet (‘Junction’) is the largest division, staffed with case officers (katsas) responsible for conducting espionage overseas and running agents. Caesarea is the division responsible for special, covert operations, and it houses the Kidon (‘Javelin’) unit, an elite group of some 40 assassins, many of whom hold dual nationalities, fluent in foreign languages, so they can operate in foreign countries. Keshet (‘Rainbow’) is in charge of electronic surveillance, break-ins, and wiretapping.
Mossad runs secret agents in Arab and other countries. Perhaps the two most famous, at least as far as we know, have been Eli Cohen and Ashraf Marwan. Cohen, an Egyptian-born Jew, infiltrated the highest ranks of the Syrian government by posing as a Syrian businessman. He broadcasted important intelligence to Israel before being exposed by Syrian intelligence and publicly hanged in the Martyrs’ Square in central Damascus on 18 May 1965. Ashraf Marwan was the son-in-law of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and he worked as a Mossad spy in the period before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, providing his Mossad handlers with exceptional intelligence; he died in mysterious circumstances, falling off a balcony in central London, on 27 June 2007. (A disclosure: his identity as ‘The Angel’, who spied for Mossad, was revealed, in 2002, by the writer of this piece.)
While intelligence collection and its analysis have always been key tasks of Mossad, critical to Israel’s survival, it has been its covert operations, notably assassinations, which earned it its reputation as a ruthless and effective organisation in service of Israel’s security. Of Mossad’s numerous covert operations, it has been ‘Operation Wrath of God’ that, to date, seems to be its most notable.
Just before dawn, on 5 September 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village in Munich, then in West Germany, and took Israeli athletes hostage, demanding that Israel free prisoners being held in its jails. In the course of a German rescue operation to free the hostages eleven were killed; this event came to be known as the ‘Munich massacre’. Subsequently, a secret committee (‘Committee X’), chaired by Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir, and including Defence Minister Moshe Dayan and two other ministers, authorised the Head of Mossad, Zvi Zamir, to assassinate Palestinians who had been, directly or indirectly, involved in the massacre. The hit squad, which was tasked to execute ‘Operation Wrath of God’, was made up of Mossad combatants of the Caesarea division.
In October 1972, they killed Wael Zwaiter, of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and cousin of Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, shooting him in the lobby of his Rome apartment building. Then, in December, they targeted Mahmoud Hamshari, the PLO representative in Paris. A Mossad member, posing as an Italian journalist, scheduled a telephone interview with Hamshari before Mossad’s explosives experts broke into his home and inserted a bomb in his telephone. At the time arranged for the interview, Hamshari was phoned, and, upon identifying himself, the bomb installed in his telephone was remotely activated; it killed him instantly. Seven more Palestinian suspects were assassinated in the course of the next few months, three of them in a daring Mossad-IDF raid at the heart of Beirut, Lebanon. In 1973, the Mossad squad, believing they had identified, in Lillehammer, Norway, the Palestinian mastermind behind the Munich massacre, Ali Hassan Salameh (nicknamed the ‘Red Prince’), shot a man. They got it wrong, mistakenly, killing Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter unrelated to the Munich massacre. A Norwegian investigation led to the arrest and conviction of five Mossad operatives, as well as to the unravelling of Mossad’s extensive network of agents in Europe. This disaster led to a temporary suspension of ‘Wrath of God’, but it was reactivated in 1979, when the Mossad squad tracked down and then assassinated Salameh in Beirut with a car bomb placed along a route that he frequented. The last known assassination of a Palestinian linked to the Munich massacre took place in 1992. Mossad’s ‘Wrath of God’ killing campaign was dramatized in the Steven Spielberg film Munich (2005).
At the press conference in which Netanyahu reported that he had instructed Mossad to kill Hamas leaders living outside of the Gaza Strip, he referred, specifically, to Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal, members of Hamas’s political bureau, the organisation’s main decision-making body, both residing in Doha, Qatar. Of the two, it is Mashal who is a most interesting case.
In 1997, Mashal was head of the political department of Hamas in Jordan and an almost unknown figure, but Israeli intelligence suspected that he was instrumental in directing Hamas activities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank; subsequently, then Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed Mossad to assassinate him. The mission was assigned to a certain Haim Ha’Keini, who headed the organisation’s Caesarea unit. Ha’Keini opted for a silent operation, which meant that rather than using guns or explosives to kill Mashal, the hit team would use ‘Almog’, the code name given to a lethal substance so deadly that a few drops in contact with the target’s skin would kill him in just a few days.
On 25 September two Mossad hitmen were waiting for Mashal to get to his office in Amman and, when he showed up, they approached him from behind and tried to spray him with the lethal poison. They partly succeeded, but Mashal managed to run away from his assailants and the two were apprehended by Jordanian police who, coincidentally, were nearby. King Hussein was livid. He demanded that Netanyahu provide details of the poison used against Mashal and that the antidote be handed over to save his life, to which Netanyahu, concerned that the crisis might lead to a further deterioration in relations with Jordan, agreed. The king also insisted that Israel release from prison a number of Palestinians, including the founding leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Netanyahu had little choice but to agree and, 12 days after the disastrous operation to kill Mashal, a series of helicopters flew from Israel to Jordan and back; in one of them, the released Mossad agents and, in the other, Sheikh Yassin and 20 freed Hamas prisoners. The Mashal affair had a direct effect, particularly, on the Gaza Strip, as Sheikh Yassin, who returned to Gaza, became a focal point in the Hamas campaign against Israel until his assassination in an Israeli helicopter attack on 22 March 2004. As for Mashal, after surviving the attempt on his life, thanks to the antidote provided by the Israelis, he returned to his duties as an important Hamas operator. At the time of writing, and following Netanyahu’s pledge to kill him, Mashel is back on the Mossad’s hit list.
When Netanyahu’s instruction to assassinate Hamas operatives worldwide gets under way, it is likely that the Mossad campaign will bear a resemblance to ‘Operation Wrath of God’, in that it would be an ongoing operation which might last months, even years. Qatar, where many of Mossad’s potential targets reside, is the only country close enough to Hamas in Gaza to communicate with it and it is the key mediator between Israel and Hamas-Gaza on the release of Israeli hostages held there. Therefore, it is unlikely that, for the time being, Mossad will operate on Qatari soil against Hamas leaders, lest Qatar turns its back on Israel, at a time, when Israel desperately needs it to help freeing its hostages.
And yet, in spite of the likely delay in the execution of the assassination mission, if I were a Hamas operative living abroad, in Qatar or elsewhere, I would have taken the necessary precautions to protect myself – just in case.