Israel acknowledged last week that it killed the late 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.
According to the Israeli Yediot Ahronoth newspaper, the PLO’s military mastermind, Abu Jihad, whose real name was Khalil al-Wazir, was shot dead in the early hours of April 16, 1988 in a commando raid on the PLO headquarters, by what was presumed to be Israeli agents.
“Israel killed the number two man in the PLO, Abu Jihad, in Tunis in 1988, it can now be reported. The intelligence part of the assassination was overseen by the Mossad, and the operational side was carried out by Sayeret Matkal,” the paper said.
Israel had 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.
In a scenario that sounds straight out of a spy novel, 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.
Two of those involved in the operation that killed Wazir now hold high political office – 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.
At the time of the raid, the PLO, headed by Arafat, was based in the North African nation of Tunisia. From a command post on an Israeli boat in the Mediterranean Sea, 26 Israeli commandos reached Tunisian shores on rubber boats.
“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 the paper prior to 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.”
The Mossad is responsible for intelligence collection, covert operations, and counterterrorism, as well as bringing Jews to Israel from countries where official aliyah agencies are forbidden, and protecting Jewish communities worldwide. It is one of the main entities in the Israeli Intelligence Community, along with Aman (military intelligence) and Shin Bet (internal security), but its director reports directly to the Prime Minister.
A number of high-level operations have been linked to the Mossad over the years, including killings of terrorists involved in the 1972 Munich massacre and the assassinations of several key members of Hezbollah.
Wazir’s son, Jihad al-Wazir, who currently heads the Palestinian central bank, said the family had no comment. Wazir had long been wanted in a series of deadly attacks against Israeli civilians. Among them, he masterminded a 1975 hostage taking at a Tel Aviv hotel in which 11 Israelis were killed, and a 1978 attack on an Israeli bus that killed 38 Israelis.
At the time of his death, he was a main organizer of the first Palestinian uprising – or intifada –against Israel, which began in December 1987, four months before he was killed.
Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades but the country rarely takes responsibility and typically does not comment about covert operations.