JERUSALEM – Israel's foreign minister said Wednesday there was no reason to assume the Mossad assassinated a Hamas military commander in Dubai, even as suspicions mounted that the country's vaunted spy agency made the hit using the identities of Israelis with European passports.
While few people are privy to the cloak-and-dagger operations of the Mossad, senior Israeli security officials not directly involved with the affair said they were convinced it was a Mossad operation because of the motive and the use of Israeli identities. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a government order not to discuss the case, characterized it as a significant Mossad bungle.
The suspicions ratcheted up pressure on Israel to be more forthcoming over the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a man it claims supplied Gaza's Hamas rulers with the most dangerous weapons it possesses. Israeli critics pointed the finger at Mossad, accusing it of sloppiness and endangering Israeli citizens.
Dubai police this week released names, photos, and passport numbers of 11 members of an alleged hit-squad that killed al-Mabhouh in his luxury Dubai hotel room last month. Dubai said all 11 carried European passports. But most of the identities appear to be stolen and at least seven matched up with real people in Israel who claim they are victims of identity theft.
"I don't know why we are assuming that Israel, or the Mossad, used those passports," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Army Radio in Israel's first official comments on the affair.
But Lieberman did not deny involvement outright, saying Israel rightly maintains a policy of ambiguity where security operations are concerned.
"Israel never responds, never confirms and never denies," he said. "There is no reason for Israel to change this policy."
Amir Oren, a military analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz, called for the ouster of Mossad director Meir Dagan.
"What is needed now is a swift decision to terminate Dagan's contract and to appoint a new Mossad chief," wrote Oren in a front-page commentary. "There's no disease without a cure."
The Iranian-backed Hamas has been blaming Israel for al-Mabhouh's killing from the beginning.
"The investigation of the police of Dubai proves what Hamas had said from the first minute, that Israel's Mossad is responsible for the assassination," Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator in Gaza, said Wednesday.
Al-Mabhouh was one of the founders of the Hamas militant group, which has carried out hundreds of attacks and suicide bombings targeting Israelis, and now rules the Gaza Strip. He also was involved in the 1989 capturing and killing of two Israeli soldiers.
Israel considered him to be the point man in smuggling Iranian rockets into Gaza that would be capable of striking the Jewish state's Tel Aviv heartland.
Al-Mabhouh was targeted in three previous assassination attempts, his brother Hussein told The Associated Press.
At least seven people who live in Israel share names with suspects identified by Dubai police. One, a British-Israeli citizen named Melvyn Adam Mildiner, said the passport photo on the Dubai wanted flier was not him but the passport number was correct. He also denied having been to Dubai.
Another of the seven, Stephen Hodes, denied any link to the case in an interview with Israel Radio and said he, too, had never visited Dubai.
"I'm shocked. I don't know how they got to me. Those aren't my photographs, of course," Hodes said. "I don't know how they got to my details, who took them. .... I'm simply afraid. These are powerful forces."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Wednesday promised an inquiry into the use of fake British passports in the killing.
"We are looking at this at this very moment," Brown told London's LBC radio. "We have got to carry out a full investigation into this. The British passport is an important document that has got to be held with care." He did not assess blame for the forgeries.
Several senior British lawmakers said Israel's envoy should be summoned to the Foreign Office to explain what his country's role in the slaying was.
The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the smallest of Britain's three main parties, said that "if the Israeli government was party to behavior of this kind it would be a serious violation of trust between nations."
Menzies Campbell, who serves on the House of Common's Foreign Affairs Committee, said "the Israeli government has some explaining to do" and called for the ambassador to be summoned "in double-quick time."
The committee's chairman, Mike Gapes, a member of Britain's ruling Labour party, added that the assassination was either the work of Israelis "or someone trying to make sure it looks like the Israelis."
Like Lieberman, Israeli security analyst Ephraim Kam said the use of Israeli identities did not prove the Mossad killed al-Mabhouh.
"I cannot see a reason why the Mossad would use the names of Israelis here or citizens who live here," Kam said.
Rafi Eitan, a former Cabinet minister and Mossad agent who took part in the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, thought Israel's foes were trying to frame it by using the identities of Israelis.
"It means some foreign service, an enemy of Israel, wanted to taint Israel. It took the names of Israeli citizens, doctored the passports ... and thus tainted us," Eitan said.
Lawmaker Yisrael Hasson, a former deputy commander of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, said he would ask to convene a meeting of the Israeli parliament's powerful foreign affairs and defense committee to discuss the matter.
"No one should use someone's identity without his permission or without his understanding in some way what it is being used for," Hasson told Israel Radio.
The Mossad has been accused of identity theft before. New Zealand convicted and jailed two Israelis in 2005 of trying to fraudulently obtain New Zealand passports. New Zealand demanded — and won — an apology from Israel, which Auckland said proved the pair were spies.
But this would be the first time that the Mossad has been suspected of using the identities of its own citizens.
If the Israeli government was behind the identity theft, it broke Israeli laws against impersonation and fraud, said Nirit Moskovich of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Kam, the security analyst, said the people whose identities were released could be in danger from Hamas.
"I think they should be careful," he said.
The affair could have unwanted diplomatic repercussions for Israel if it indeed used the foreign passports of its own nationals. Several British lawmakers on Wednesday called for the Israeli ambassador to be summoned to the Foreign Office immediately to explain what happened.
The affair could also have fallout for the Mossad as an agency, and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Dagan personally.
Netanyahu's first tenure in the late 1990s was marred by the Mossad's botched attempt at assassinating the man who now is Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal.
But while Haaretz commentator Oren was calling for Dagan's head, analyst Ronen Bergman of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper deemed the operation a success.
"Al-Mabhouh is dead and all the partners to the operation left Dubai safely," he said.