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CIAO DATE: 05/2010

The Making of a Martyr

The Journal of International Security Affairs

A publication of:
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs

Volume: 0, Issue: 17 (Fall 2009)

Matthew Levitt


Full Text

In the annals of daring intelligence operations, Israel's Mossad stands alone. Most recently, the Israeli spy agency is suspected of pulling off the identification and penetration of a nearly-completed Syrian nuclear reactor previously unknown to Western intelligence services, as well as the assassination of Hezbollah arch terrorist Imad Mughniyeh.

But as in all endeavors involving risk, sometimes such gambits fail. In the case of the Mossad's botched attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in September 1997, it failed miserably. Had the Israeli agents successfully poisoned Mishal and escaped undetected, as planned, the world would never have known that Mishal had been murdered, let alone of Israel's hand in his death. Paul McGeough, an accomplished reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald, would have needed another hook for his book on Hamas. But events played out differently, and McGeough expertly tells the tale of the failed assassination and the way Mishal leveraged his new status as Hamas' "living martyr" to great effect in fending off rivals to his leadership within Hamas.

What McGeough fails to adequately convey are the events that led Israeli officials to decide that targeting a then-relatively unknown Hamas leader, on the streets of one of only two Arab countries at peace with the Jewish state, was a risk worth taking. Only after the book's first 126 pages is the reader eventually introduced, in passing, to the string of spectacular terrorist attacks Hamas carried out in the weeks before the attempted assassination of Mishal in Amman, Jordan. Readers should not expect to read of these terrorist attacks in Killing Khalid, let alone of logistical and support networks Hamas maintains to support them. The Hamas suicide bombers who targeted an outdoor Jerusalem market in July 1997 are not the subject of a chapter or analysis in McGeough's telling, nor are the suicide bombers who targeted Jerusalem's popular Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall that September. The attempt to assassinate Mishal immediately followed this second attack, which was carried out by a cell that the Israeli Shin Bet warned was planning still more attacks. According to American and Israeli authorities, Mishal personally funded and approved just these types of attacks.

I remember the July 30, 1997, double suicide bombing of the Mahane Yehuda outdoor market well. That morning, as the Hamas suicide bombers began their trip from a village near Nablus in the northern West Bank to their target in Jerusalem, I was making the reverse trip from my Jerusalem hotel to interview Palestinian officials at the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in the de facto West Bank capital of Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem. A significant press contingent was already there when I arrived, around the same time the Hamas bombers were evading the last few Israeli checkpoints separating them from downtown Jerusalem. The press had come to cover the release of a long-awaited PLC report on corruption within Arafat's notoriously corrupt Palestinian Authority.

The press left as quickly as it came, however, complete with screeching tires and microphone extension poles still protruding from their windows, when word came of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market. I caught a ride back into Jerusalem in the car of a Western journalist, but police had already cordoned off the blast site and it was not until that evening that I was able to go back and see the carnage first-hand. The first bomber apparently detonated a relatively small device, driving crowds down a perpendicular alley in the market where his partner then detonated his much larger bomb. Sixteen people were killed and 178 were wounded, many critically since the explosive vests were filled with nails and screws to inflict maximum injury. I found children's shoes in puddles of blood and a mangled electric wheelchair turned into a makeshift shrine near the epicenter of the blast. This side of Hamas is not part of McGeough's narrative.

Still, as a novel-like storyline, Killing Khalid is a gripping read. As a serious and balanced study of Hamas, however, the book's flaws run deep and wide. The layman will find it hard to put down this page-turner but should be forewarned that McGeough's lackluster analysis does not match his expert storytelling.

The decision to carry out a dangerous assassination on Jordanian soil and put at risk the landmark Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty may well have been ill-informed, though the author draws this conclusion not from interviews with Israeli decision makers but from press clippings. McGeough's use of pejorative adjectives to describe Israeli leaders and actions makes his own position abundantly clear (as does his description of Hamas leaders in more glowing prose). So the Mishal assassination, which the Hamas leader "heroically" survived, was a "savage" wound the Israeli intelligence community inflicted upon itself. Indeed, readers will experience McGeough's lack of impartiality throughout the narrative. The author's extensive interviews with Hamas leaders-including Mishal himself-stand in stark contrast to the complete dearth of parallel interviews with Israeli officials.

The author's firsthand access to Khalid Mishal in his Damascus headquarters makes for strong narrative, to be sure. But in his captivation with the subject of his study, McGeough glosses over Mishal's lesser virtues. According to declassified U.S. intelligence, made public when the U.S. Treasury designated Mishal as a terrorist, there are "cells in the military wing based in the West Bank that are under Mishaal's [sic] control." Moreover, the U.S. information revealed, "Mishaal [sic] has been responsible for supervising assassination operations, bombings and the killing of Israeli settlers" and provides instructions to elements of the Hamas Qassam Brigades terrorist wing.

McGeough's conclusion, that the West will just have to accept that Hamas is part of the equation and engage Hamas leaders like Mishal as partners in peace, is premature to say the least. Even in the wake of its electoral victory in January 2006, Hamas cannot be engaged as a legitimate actor or partner so long as the movement remains committed to engaging in acts of violence targeting civilians, refuses to accept past agreements negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and continues to see Israel as an illegitimate entity that must ultimately be destroyed. Fellow Palestinians, who found themselves on the receiving end of Hamas hostilities when the group took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007, may also have something to say about engaging extremists like Hamas at the expense of Palestinian moderates.

Oddly enough, neither Hamas leaders nor Israelis nor moderate Palestinians are the real heroes in McGeough's story. The ultimate protagonists in Killing Khalid are journalists, like the author himself. They heroically break stories; stealthily evade authorities to file reports; and cunningly get the people they interview to tell what they would otherwise hide. The book's focus on these and other characters-people who played some real role, however small, in the actual Hamas story-is one reason it makes for such a good read.

But not all experts and practitioners who have dealt with the Hamas file in real life agreed to the author's offer to be featured as a character in his book, this reviewer included. Given the final product, I made the right call.