Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Saturday, 20 February 2010

Dubai killing awakes ghosts of assassinations past

CCTV footage of alleged assassination team
Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s

Jeremy Bowen assesses the fall-out in the Middle East from the alleged assassination of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in a luxury Dubai hotel.

"Shame you are not filming on a Friday," said a local resident.

Jimmy, the BBC cameraman, was trying to get some decent pictures of the Dubai skyline, but there was a haze that was not helping.

"Why Friday?" we asked.

"Well, there is less building on a Friday," he said, "so the air is not so dusty."

Even with Dubai's well-advertised economic problems there is still a lot of construction going on, by the standards of most places.

This is my first proper trip to Dubai since the late 90s and it is unrecognisable.

Back in the 1960s, according to my uncle who was here with the British army, the runway lights at Dubai airport were barrels of burning tar.

Burj Khalifa
The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers

When I was here first, on my way to Afghanistan in the late 80s, a fairly compact city was surrounded by a sweep of open desert, which just is not there any more.

They must have poured tens of millions of tonnes of concrete to build this sprawling city state.

As I write, I can see a burnt orange sun setting behind the Burj Khalifa, the new skyscraper that is the world's highest building. It is extraordinarily tall.

Acres of gardens and golf courses in Dubai are green and lush, in a place with almost no rain, thanks to hugely expensive desalination plants.

The climate is wonderful right now, but in the summer it is appallingly hot and humid.

Never mind, everywhere is air-conditioned, especially the indoor ski slope, where they make real indoor snow and have a black run for experts.

'Unobtainable dream'

Love it or hate it, they have tamed nature to build an incredible city.

Perhaps they never thought they could tame the Middle East too, though minds that could conceive the Burj Khalifa are not short of ambition.

But if not tame it, they were hoping to insulate this place from its dark, violent ways.

The assassination of the Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh proves that was one unobtainable dream.

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh
It is assumed Mossad is behind Mr Mabhouh's death

The long war, the century or so of conflict between Arabs and Jews, cannot be defeated by property developers.

Its capacity to generate and export violence is unparalleled in today's world.

Was Mr Mabhouh killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service?

I do not know for certain. But there is circumstantial evidence that he was.

Bloody hands

And he was an enemy of Israel, according to the press there, involved with arms shipments into Gaza.

In the kind of phrase Israelis use, he had Jewish blood on his hands.

Hamas gave him a hero's funeral.

Mossad has form. Assassination has been one of its specialities since the time that Israel was killing Nazis in the 1950s.

If Israel was behind the assassination, then its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might well be troubled by the ghosts of assassinations past.

In 1997, during his first stint as prime minister, he authorised a Mossad hit on an up-and-coming man in Hamas, a Palestinian called Khaled Meshaal.

Two Mossad agents approached Mr Meshaal as he was walking down a street in Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Map of United Arab Emirates

They sprayed poison into his ear. But they bungled their escape and they were captured. They were carrying false Canadian passports.

King Hussein, who had not long since signed a peace treaty with Israel, was outraged. For him, it was not just a breach of trust.

Rumours started that he was somehow complicit in the attack. With Mr Meshaal close to death, King Hussein demanded that Israel gave his doctors the formula for the poison and the antidote.

To get their two captured agents back, the Israelis were forced to release dozens of Jordanian and Palestinian prisoners.

They included the spiritual leader of Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He was a thorn in Israel's side until he too was assassinated in an air strike in Gaza in 2003

Khaled Meshaal survived and is now the most senior political figure in Hamas, living behind heavy security in Damascus.

Netanyahu's 'fiasco'

So it was not a good time for Mr Netanyahu.

King Hussein refused to see him when he went to Amman to apologise and the then head of Mossad was forced to resign.

Israelis viewed the affair as a costly fiasco. It was one of the factors that contributed to a comprehensive defeat of Mr Netanyahu in an election two years later.

Benjamin Netanyahu [File pic]
Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election after a Mossad killing

But there is one very significant difference between then and now.

In Amman in 1997 the would-be assassins were captured, along with their false Canadian papers.

This time round the alleged assassins' faces have been published, along with their assumed names.

If they are Israeli agents, or freelance killers, then their identities have been blown.

But they are not in custody and that makes it much harder to prove that Israel did it.

If Israel had nothing to do with the killing, or with the theft of identities from its own citizens for the alleged assassins' passports, then Mr Netanyahu, now in his second term, has nothing to worry about.

But if Mossad is responsible - and that is the assumption in Israel as well as here in Dubai - then he has some sweating to do in the next few weeks.

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