Israel declined official comment on Sunday following news of the assassination in Dubai of a key Hamas operative. But analysts and defense officials here say that Mahmoud Mabhouh, who was found dead in his room in a luxury hotel on Jan. 20, was the point man for transferring weapons from Iran to Gaza, and has long been wanted by Israel following his involvement in the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers more than 20 years ago.
Hamas officials in Gaza announced this weekend that although Mr. Mabhouh's death originally appeared to be a heart attack, they discovered evidence indicating that he was assassinated by Israeli agents.
A top analyst at the Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) says that Mabhouh was considered extremely important to Israel on several levels. Moreover, Mabhouh's killing follows the assassination nearly two years ago of a key Hizbullah operative, Imad Mughniyah, notes Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of the INSS.
"Mabhouh was involved in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, and he was responsible for the delivery of arms from Iran to Hamas, so there's no question he was important," Dr. Kam says. "A third point to recognize is that this event deters Hamas and Hizbullah. Especially after the killing of Mughniyah, which Hizbullah threatened to avenge but did not, this sends a red light to senior commanders of Hizbullah and Hamas. Essentially, if they attack Israel, they're not safe anywhere."
"Each organization will say they have men ready to replace him," Kam adds, but nonetheless, there will be a gap in operations following such a loss.
Senior Hamas official Mahmoud az-Zahar said over the weekend that he believes Mabhouh's assassins arrived in Dubai as part of the entourage of Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet. In an Al Jazeera interview, az-Zahar said Israel was "moving the battlefield abroad."
Other Hamas officials suggested that Hamas would do the same, by targeting Israelis overseas. So far, Hamas has not been known to attack Jewish or Israeli targets outside of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Israeli officials denied the accusations that the ministerial visit to Abu Dhabi, the first of its kind, was in any way connected with the assassination, which happened three days later.
"What we are seeing here is the wild Middle Eastern imagination coupled with Palestinian anger that the Israeli flag is formally flying at a conference at a hall in Abu Dhabi," Mr. Landau told Israel Radio on Sunday.
Neither Israel's defense ministry nor the Israel Defense Forces would comment on the assassination. But a defense official, speaking on background, acknowledged that Israel had tracked Mabhouh for a long time, following his involvement in the 1989 kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa'adon.
Soon afterwards, Mabhouh fled from the Gaza Strip and has lived abroad since. He was buried at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus Friday.
"He's one of the key connection men between Gaza and Iran. Over the years, apparently he went from being a small terrorist to a big smuggler," the Israeli defense source said.
Various media outlets have quoted Dubai's police as saying that the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, may be behind the assassination, but that other perpetrators had not been ruled out. The suspected assassins, the police chief told reporters, had already fled the country.