Mossad's failed hit and rise of Hamas

Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit ... and the rise of Hamas
By Paul McGeough
Allen and Unwin (2009) 440 pp $35
Reviewed by Kim Bullimore

At the age of 11, Khalid Mishal and his family, like thousands of other Palestinians, became refugees once again in their own land, when Israel seized control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. In the wake of Israel’s capture of what remained of historic Palestine, Khalid’s mother, Fatima, bundled up her children and fled to Jordan and then Kuwait where the young Khalid’s father had been working for some time. Like many Palestinians of this generation, and the one before it, who experienced the bitter loss of their homeland first hand, the struggle for a free Palestine would become one of the central defining aspects of the young Khalid Mishal’s life.

Unlike many of the young men of the previous generation, however, Mishal did not go on to embrace the secular Palestinian national liberation movement. Having witnessed the failures of this movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, Mishal instead entered into Islamic-based politics and eventually became one of the founders of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, and ultimately its key leader.

Paul McGeough in his new book, Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed hit ... and the rise of Hamas, looks at not only the life of Khalid Mishal and his role in the establishment and rise of Hamas but also the bungled attempt by the Israeli state to assassinate him in 1997. McGeough outlines how the plot to kill Mishal involved a team of Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists. The plan was to poison Mishal in broad daylight, on the streets of Amman, as he left his home.

However, the bungling assassins botched the mission. One of the would-be-assassins was chased down and captured by Mishal’s body guard, while other members of the Mossad death squad were forced to flee to the Israeli embassy, which was subsequently surrounded by the Jordanian military. In the diplomatic confrontation with Jordan’s King Hussein, the Israeli government, then led by Benjamin Netanyahu, was forced to back down and provide an antidote for the poison used by its agents, in order to save Mishal’s life.

Mossad’s reputation for supposedly being an “invincible” elite spy force took a severe battering as a result of their botched assassination attempt on Mishal. As McGeough notes, “All Israelis were steeped in tales of Mossad’s daring” and as a result “there could be no room for failure”. For Netanyahu, the embarrassment was even deeper. After the Mishal assassination failure, Netanyahu was labelled a “serial bungler” on the front page of the London Economist. Zvi Machlin, one the Israeli Mossad agents involved in the 1960 capture in Buenos Aires of Adolf Eichmann, the logistical organiser of the Holocaust, described the plan to kill Mishal as “childish”, “amateurish”, “impractical” and “clumsy”, concluding that the plan was enough to make “a junior recruit blush with shame”.

While the attempted assassination of Mishal is the hook on which McGeough hangs his book, much of it examines the role Mishal played in helping to establish Hamas and his rise through its ranks to become its key leader. It also examines the development of the organisation itself in relation to the Palestinian national liberation struggle and the Palestinian, Arab and international political landscapes.

Formally founded in 1987, a day after the first Palestinian intifada erupted, Hamas, like Yasser Arafat’s secular movement Fatah, originally had its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, both organisations soon broke formally with the Muslim Brotherhood, with Arafat’s Fatah adopting a secular outlook, while Hamas developed its own Islamic branch of Palestinian nationalism.

Hamas’ nationalism has been shaped, as much by its adherence to political Islam, as by the broader Palestinian experience of British and Zionist colonisation, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 by Zionist forces, the experience of Jordanian and Egyptian rule in the 1948–67 period, Israel’s subsequent 42-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the failure of the secular Palestinian liberation movement.

As Beverly Milton Edwards noted in her 1996 book Islamic Politics in Palestine, Hamas’ politics not only represent the ideas of the devout Muslims in Palestine but also reflect many of the beliefs of the wider Palestinian population. Unlike other Islamist political groups, such as al Qaeda, Hamas is not driven by pan-Islamism (the goal of unifying all predominately Muslim-inhabited countries into a single state ruled by Islamic law). Instead, Hamas has consistently defined its struggle to being the liberation of the Palestinian nation from Zionist rule.

In a 2007 Los Angeles Times article, Abu Mazook, Mishal’s deputy, noted that Hamas had been “continually linked by President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to ideologies that they know full well we do not follow, such as the agenda of al Qaeda and its adherents. But we are not part of a broader war. Our resistance struggle is no one’s proxy, although we welcome the support of people everywhere for justice in Palestine.”

Today, while Hamas still retains its faith-based nationalism, its politics have shifted considerably, as a result of the Palestinian liberation struggle taking on greater importance within the organisation than adherence to Islam. Today, rather than seeing the Israeli occupation of Palestine as a result of a Jewish conspiracy, as Hamas argued in its much-quoted 1988 charter, its leaders now see the conflict as a result of imperialism and colonial aggression. Hamas now views the existence of the Israeli state as part of an imperialist drive to assert Western hegemony over the Middle East region.

Hamas first came to broader international attention as a result of its use of suicide bombings against Israeli citizens in the 1990s. These bombings were carried out over a period of 12 years and resulted in the death of more than 480 Israeli citizens, including soldiers and civilians. While an occupied people are afforded the right to armed resistance under international law, Hamas’ tactic (which was also adopted by other Palestinian resistance groups such as Islamic Jihad and the secular Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) played into the hands of the Israeli rulers, enabling them to deflect public attention from the brutality of its occupation by portraying Israel as the victim of fanatical Arabs who allegedly harbour an irrational hatred of Jews.

As McGeough notes in his book, however, after extensive internal discussion within the organisation about the impact of suicide bombings not only on Israel but on international public opinion, Hamas declared an end to the tactic in 2005. McGeough, however, fails to note that Hamas had previously announced earlier moratoriums on suicide bombings, observing them until Israel assassinated Hamas leaders.

Since 2001, Hamas’ armed struggle against Israel has largely taken the form of firing mortars and crude rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. From 2001 until April this year, some 7500 such rockets have been fired at Israeli targets, resulting in the deaths of 15 Israelis. These rocket attacks have had a negligible impact of the military capability of the Israeli state, while giving the Israeli rulers the pretext to impose a crippling siege and to carry out a devastating war on Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

McGeough is one of Australia’s best known journalists and foreign correspondents, having won eight Walkley Awards for excellence in Australian journalism. Despite some minor inaccuracies in Kill Khalid, McGeough paints a vivid picture of life for Palestinian refugees in the wake of the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 Naksa, the two major defining moments in Palestinian national history. Kill Khalid also provides a useful insight into the rise and political evolution of Hamas. It is well worth the read.