JERUSALEM: Israel acknowledged Thursday it killed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s deputy in a 1988 raid in Tunisia, lifting a nearly 25-year veil of secrecy and allowing a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of its secret operations.
One of the commandos was disguised as a woman on a romantic vacation, and one of the weapons was hidden in a box of chocolates.
Khalil al-Wazir, who was better known by his nom de guerre Abu Jihad, founded Fatah, the dominant faction in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with Arafat and was blamed for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.
Two of those involved in the operation that killed al-Wazir now hold high political office in Israel — Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon. At the time, Barak was deputy military chief, and Yaalon was head of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. Their precise roles in the operation were not divulged, and both men’s offices declined comment.
Israel has long been suspected of assassinating al-Wazir. But only now has the country’s military censor cleared the Yediot Ahronot daily to publish the information, including an interview with the commando who killed him, at least 12 years after the newspaper obtained the information.
“I shot him with a long burst of fire. I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died,” commando Nahum Lev told Yediot before his death in a motorcycle accident in 2000. “Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation.”
Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades. But Israel rarely takes responsibility and typically does not comment about covert operations.
The Palestinians have long accused Israel of being behind the assassination.
Abbas Zaki, a top official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement, said the Palestinians and Tunisia should now “work to bring Israel to justice.”
Zaki said the Palestinians hope their bid to gain upgraded observer status at the United Nations next month will enable them to join the International Criminal Court where they can “pursue Israel for its crimes against our people.”
On the surface, Wazir was a quiet, soft spoken figure in an organization replete with flamboyant characters. He eschewed the high-living that tainted some PLO figures during the organization’s years in Beirut, with its night clubs and cafes. That enabled him to maintain the respect of all the factions within the PLO.
But behind the mild, non-threatening facade was a man capable of using brutality and bloodshed to advance the cause of Palestinian independence. He was largely responsible for organizing PLO underground cells within the West Bank and Gaza.