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Former Mossad chief Yatom recalls failed assassination attempt on Hamas head

Former Mossad head Danny Yatom (Mainichi)

JERUSALEM -- In 1997, agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad were in Jordan, a neighbor and ally, to kill Khaled Mashal, then the political head of Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas.

    The attempt failed, and the 61-year-old Mashal led Hamas until this past May.

    The author of the assassination plan was then Mossad chief Danny Yatom, now 72, who recently spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about the details of the failed assassination attempt, which shows the dangers of pre-emptive strikes for "self-defense" -- justified by both Israel and the United States as "anti-terror measures."

    In the Six-Day War of June 1967, Israel captured and absorbed territories including the West Bank of the Jordan River and East Jerusalem. Facing resistance from the local Palestinian population, Israel sought to "nip the terrorist threat in the bud" by assassinating key militant group members.

    Thirty years later, beset by Hamas suicide bombings, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Israel's security services to draw up a revenge plan. Reprisal attacks are banned under international law, but nevertheless Yatom drew up a list of people to be assassinated, and Netanyahu approved it. However, Yatom told the Mainichi that the prime minister then said that "it should preferably be Mashal."

    Mashal was then the head of Hamas' political wing, but Yatom said that the Palestinian "was and is the supreme commander of Hamas." It also appears that Israel was attempting to regain some face by taking out the "face" of the militant group.

    Mossad is under the direct control of the Israeli prime minister, and there are no specific written provisions on agency activities, including assassination operations. For the Mashal hit, Yatom said he "chose a very quiet method.

    "The reason was that Jordan ... was still a sensitive location. I did not want to humiliate the Jordanians." Yatom continued that, with the "silent method," "if someone stops and searches you just a second before the execution, they will not find anything incriminating. This way, once the operation succeeds, it would have looked as if Mashal died of natural causes."

    Yatom refused to name the chemical agent used, but there are reports that a substance easily absorbed by the human body -- which contains the synthetic sedative fentanyl said to be 200 times more potent than morphine -- had been manufactured at the Israel Institute for Biological Research. The institute is under the jurisdiction of the prime minister's office.

    If Mashal had died suddenly and mysteriously, Yatom said, Mossad was certain people would soon speculate that Israel had been behind it, "even if there was nothing to signal (our involvement)." This would have made for even stronger deterrence than "a bullet in the forehead" on the street. Yatom added that the Mashal hit was in part a psychological operation, intended to make other Hamas leaders wonder if they were next.

    On Sept. 25, 1997, on a street in the Jordanian capital Amman, someone put an unknown liquid on Mashal's exposed skin, and the Palestinian fell into a coma. Two of the eight Mossad agents in the city were taken into custody. Four others fled to the Israeli Embassy, which was surrounded by Jordanian security forces. In return for letting the Mossad agents go, Jordan demanded the poison's chemical formula and its antidote. If Mashal died, the Jordanian government declared, then the peace treaty with Israel would die with him.

    About half of Jordan's population is made up of Palestinians who lost their land when Israel was founded. If the Jordanian authorities looked weak in their response to the Mashal operation, it would invite a backlash from local Palestinians, possibly destabilizing the country.

    Netanyahu did provide the antidote, but would initially not give up the poison's chemical formula as it was "national property." Eventually, U.S. President Bill Clinton intervened, and pressured Israel into handing over the formula as well.

    The antidote was administered to Mashal, who woke up two days later. Yatom noted that no terrorist ever brought down by a security agency had ever been revived like that before, and called the operation Mossad's greatest failure.

    State-sponsored assassinations are considered one form of pre-emptive strike. The Rand Corporation, a U.S. think tank, categorizes the Mashal operation as just such a strike, along with the Israeli air attack on an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981. Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister at the time, insisted that his country had acted in self-defense as provided for by Chapter 7, Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

    This approach was known thereafter as the "Begin doctrine," and is used extensively today to justify drone strike assassinations. However, three conditions were originally needed to fulfill the right to self-defense defined under Article 51: that there be an imminent and unlawful violation; that there be no other methods available to avert that violation; and that military action be kept to the absolute minimum necessary for self-defense.

    Judgments on whether an action meets these conditions are not made public, and they can be interpreted subjectively and self-righteously, meaning there is always a danger of their misinterpretation or abuse.

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