International speculation has focused on the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service which has carried out a number of assassinations abroad in the past, though the Israeli government has refused to confirm or deny these rumors.
On the one hand, many Israelis maintain a kind of pride in the Mossad and its reputation for stealthily pursuing enemies of the Jewish state in far-flung places. On the other, the fact that at least six of the 11 alleged assassins were traveling under identities apparently stolen from Israeli citizens – all of those six were holders of UK passports who immigrated here – has many questioning the ethics of the organization.
"There are plenty of people who would have been willing to cooperate with that kind of a mission. So if they're using these people's identities unbeknownst to them, then it's very problematic," says Jean-Marc Liling, a Swiss-French human rights lawyer who now lives in Israel. "Using people's identities without their consent is really intolerable."
Israel is an immigrant society, and most people who move here from Western countries maintain their original nationalities and passports. Given that, many here think it's unfair for the state to have endangered those citizens' freedom of travel – landing them on Interpol's "highest-level alert" list for alleged criminals. Moreover, notes Liling, there's concern here that the affair could hurt relations with Britain and other friendly countries.
The 11 assassins carried six British Passports, three Irish, and one each from Germany and France. So far, only the names used on the British passports -- which the UK say were forgeries -- have turned up to match the names of Israeli citizens.
"We can't go burning our bridges with every country over events like this," says Liling. "Even the more liberal, human rights-oriented sectors of Israeli society understand the need for these operations, and I think most of our allies in the world would prefer this to an all-out operation against Hamas in Gaza. But there will be criticism among Israelis, even those that do not automatically disapprove of such actions, that if you are going to carry out such operations, you should not take risks that hold high chances of you screwing up."
Indeed, because of this unfolding of what had, until a few days ago, seemed like a "success," some Israelis said they didn't believe their own Mossad was responsible. News on Thursday of the arrests of two Palestinians in Jordan in connection with the Jan. 20 assassination in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, an alleged Hamas arms procurer, fueled suspicions that key aspects of the story were yet unknown.
"It seems too sloppy to be our guys," says Yossi Levy, a former policeman, as he sat having a midday coffee with friends.
Shmuel Karmeli, a retiree who used to work for the juvenile court system, says Israelis are still trying to weigh what's right.
"We feel he [Mabhouh] had it coming to him: he killed Israeli soldiers," says Mr. Karmeli. "But we're weighing that against the damage that was done to individual Israelis, who will perhaps be endangered by this development. Perhaps it'll never be safe for them to travel again."
Some in Israel also questioned whether there should be a flat-out assumption that these were cases of identity theft. Yossi Melman, a writer on intelligence affairs for the liberal newspaper Haaretz, says that it's possible the people in question had agreed at some point to help the Mossad, though were not informed of the specific ways in which they – or simply their names - would be "drafted."
"What would you expect people to say to the media? 'I volunteered for this and gave them my passport?' If you look carefully at their reactions, most of them are taking it very lightly, and not going through the roof," Mr. Melman says. Attempts to reach several the people in question were unsuccessful; most were not answering their phones over the past two days.
Of course, when it comes to the cloak-and-dagger dynamics of spy work, it's hard to sift fact from fiction. What can be said in no uncertain terms is that Israelis are gripped by the saga.
"Whatever it is, it's an amazing story and I can't get enough of it," says a psychologist, who asked for anonymity. Why? She says she might want to work for the Mossad some day. Though it used to be a hush-hush agency which didn't have an address – don’t call us, we'll call you – things have changed in the Information Age. The agency now maintains a website through which it solicits would-be employees, just like the CIA and the MI5.
"Through this affair, we finally get some insight into how they work, how they sent each person in from different countries, which is just fascinating," she says. "I saw this video of them coming out of the elevator and thought, that guy with the big belly is one of them? It's not exactly how you imagine a Mossad agent."