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    Khaled Meshal: 25 years of the great Mossad fiasco: from poisoning a Hamas leader to giving him the antidote | International | The USA Print

    Twenty-five years ago, the leader of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Meshal, went in a few days from near death in a hospital in Amman, due to the poison that Mossad agents introduced through his ear, to making fun of the famous Israel’s secret service abroad, already cured thanks to the antidote provided to him, forced, by the same ones who had tried to assassinate him, in one of the biggest -known- fiascoes in the Mossad’s decades of history.

    Instead of putting an end to the Palestinian Islamist leader, the embarrassing failed assassination of September 25, 1997 -in the street and in broad daylight- resulted in the delivery of the antidote and the release of some 70 Palestinian prisoners, including the leader spiritual leader of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, to appease the diplomatic crisis that he generated with Jordan. King Hussein, who felt “stabbed in the back” by the Mossad’s attempt to kill in his country in secret, did not even want to receive an apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the palace. He sent his brother, then Crown Prince Hassan. In addition, Canada called its ambassador in Tel Aviv for consultations (the spies used forged passports from that country) and Meshal’s figure was reinforced.

    Israel and Jordan had signed peace three years earlier, following the Oslo Accords. The horizon between Israelis and Palestinians soon darkened, with frequent attacks, mainly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the accelerated expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territory; and, as a turning point, the assassination in Tel Aviv by an Israeli ultra-nationalist of the then prime minister and architect of Oslo, Isaac Rabin. In 1996, the right-wing Netanyahu won the elections with a message of toughness towards the Palestinians.

    A year later, two Hamas suicide bombers killed 16 people in Jerusalem’s main market, Mahane Yehuda. It was the last straw for Netanyahu, who asked Mossad chief Danny Yatom for a list of Hamas targets to make a splash. The chosen one was Meshal, a then 41-year-old rising figure living in Amman.

    Attack on the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem in 1997.
    Attack on the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem in 1997.

    The Mossad opted for an unprecedented formula to assassinate him: pour a nerve agent on the back of his neck with a device fitted to the palm of his hand. The USSR had disintegrated a few years before and, among the hundreds of thousands of Jews who then emigrated to Israel, several scientists were recruited.

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    Since the objective was to act discreetly and for the agents to return to Israel before the murder became known, lofentanil, an opioid 100 times stronger than morphine, was chosen. The dose was intended to put him into a deep sleep and, within 48 hours, death, in what would appear to be a stroke or heart attack. Unless specifically searched for, lofentanil does not show up at autopsy. A discreet murder without a trace.

    The plan was for one of the agents to open a previously shaken can of soda in front of Meshal and the other to take advantage of the confusion to poison him. The drinking trick was tried before on the streets of Tel Aviv with several passers-by.

    The task corresponded to a cell of Kidón, the elite unit responsible for special operations, formed mainly by twentysomethings with a meticulous physical, mental and weapons training. His most famous operation is Wrath of God, the assassination campaign in revenge for the Palestinian attack on the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 that Steven Spielberg took to the cinema in Munich. They flew to Amman separately as tourists from different cities. The two responsible for the poisoning carried false Canadian passports.

    a rushed operation

    From there, almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The plan was to leisurely collect data on the Islamist leader’s routines until, in internal parlance, the operation was “mature.” In the end, they had to hurry to do it on the morning of September 25, in which Meshal was going to the office with three of his seven children, who the driver was then going to bring to the hairdresser. The spies did not even know that he sometimes accompanied his children, nor could they see them that day from the car because they did not protrude from the back seat.

    Arriving at the office, Meshal noticed two men in sunglasses at the entrance who looked suspicious. “I felt that something was not right […] I hesitated between going out or going in the car. It was a 50/50 choice,” he says. Kill Him Silentlythe documentary about chain poisoning Al-Jazeera. He got out of the vehicle and his daughter ran to see him off again. As he turned to her, one of the officers inserted the substance into her ear instead of the back of her neck, while the other struggled unsuccessfully to open the soda can. Meshal noticed a kind of “ringing in the ear, followed by an electric shock in the body”, as she later described it.

    Khaled Meshal, on his return to Amman in 2016 for his mother's funeral.
    Khaled Meshal, on his return to Amman in 2016 for his mother’s funeral.Jordan Pix (Getty Images)

    Just then, another of his bodyguards appeared by chance, Mohamad Abu Seif, trained in hand-to-hand combat in the camps of mujahideen in Afghanistan. She ran to the car, took down the license plate, model and color, and stopped the first vehicle that passed to chase them. When the Israelis tried to get rid of the car, he caught up with them and a horrible fight broke out in a ditch, in which Abu Seif and one of the spies soon had their faces covered in blood. When the second agent was about to crush the head of Meshal’s bodyguard with a large rock, Saad Al Khatib appeared, a former Palestinian Liberation Army militiaman who was going to see his mother in a taxi and got out almost in motion when he saw the fight. The Mossad agents, no longer superior and fearful of ending up lynched by the crowd that had been milling around, resigned themselves to ending up at the police station.

    There they stuck to the alibi that they were mere Canadian tourists attacked for no reason in the middle of the street and they telephoned “some relatives” who were actually their superiors. The Canadian consul went to the police station, asked them where they grew up and if they supported a popular Canadian hockey team. “I don’t know where they’re from, but not from Canada,” he said as he left, says Ronen Bergman in his book Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations (Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations).

    “Everyone was to blame for the fiasco,” explains Yossi Melman, the well-known journalist for the newspaper Ha’aretz specialized in intelligence matters and author of the essay Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. “Bibi [el apodo de Netanyahu], because he wanted an answer when he felt that he was losing public opinion; Yatom, for not opposing and sending agents who were prepared to act in European countries, but not in an Arab one, something that requires a different preparation; and the agents, because they failed to communicate and did not abort the mission, as they should have done. There was also bad luck,” he explains.

    From calm to hospital

    At first, Meshal was fine. He understood from the beginning that it was an assassination attempt, but since he did not hear “shots or an explosion”, he thought he had failed. Hours later, he was hospitalized tired, dizzy and short of breath.

    With the Islamist leader already in a coma and on a respirator, the two spies behind bars and four other members of the refugee cell in the Israeli Embassy in Amman, the merry-go-round of trips and calls between Israel, Jordan and the United States began. Netanyahu explained what happened to President Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, who replied, “What were you thinking?” Ross recounted in his memoir. The head of the Mossad had to fly to Amman urgently by helicopter to tell the truth to the King of Jordan. In his memoirs he relates that he prayed twice during the operation: once for Meshal to die and once for his survival.

    Hussein ordered the embassy surrounded and threatened to storm it if he did not receive the antidote that same day. “If Meshal dies, so does the peace deal,” the king warned Clinton, according to his then-chief of staff Ali Shukri. The president of the United States ended the conversation with a mention of Netanyahu: “This man is impossible.”

    Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem in 1997.
    Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem in 1997.Antoine Gyori – Corbis (Sygma via Getty Images)

    An “almost panicked” Netanyahu – in Melman’s words – relented, knowing that his two arrested agents would be sentenced to death if Meshal perished. The final price: the delivery of the antidote, the release of Sheikh Yassin (who was greeted with kisses by the Jordanian king and Yasir Arafat) and 70 other Palestinian prisoners – some of them involved in attacks -, and the promise never again act in Jordan without a green light, as Rabin had agreed with King Hussein. On the way to agreement, all they mistrusted everyone: the leaders of Hamas, about Meshal’s transfer to the king’s trusted hospital; the Jordanians, of the antidote (they tested it and did not let the Israelis accompany them); and the Israelis, to reveal to the Jordanians the poison used, which they considered a state secret.

    On October 1, seven days after the poisoning, the blind and quadriplegic Yasin (who was serving a life sentence) landed on a stretcher in Amman while a military helicopter returned the spies to Israel. Seven years later, the Israeli army killed Yassin in Gaza with a missile. Meshal is still alive, in Qatar.

    The operation undermined the image of Mossad, with up to three investigation commissions in which no one came out well, despite the fact that it was not the first – nor would it be the last – to go wrong. In 1973, the team that avenged the Munich attack mistakenly murdered a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, when he was returning from the cinema with his wife in the Norwegian town of Lillehammer. Eight years earlier, Eli Cohen, a myth in Israel, slipped into the kitchen of the Syrian leadership in the 1960s and passed information that would prove key in the Six-Day War, but was found out and hanged. In 2004, New Zealand caught two Israeli agents trying to fraudulently obtain passports.

    Many in Israel recalled the Amman episode when Mossad agents killed another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhuh, in a Dubai hotel in 2010. A good part of the operation was captured by the security cameras, in an act perhaps of bungling, perhaps of chutspá Israeli (chutzpah) that fueled the image of Mossad as that lethal machine with unlimited capabilities from which you can flee, but never escape. A reputation nurtured for decades by the institution itself, to generate uneasiness in its enemies wherever they are; for its most audacious operations and for the anti-Semitic myth of the ubiquity of Jewish power.

    Security video shows Mossad agents dressed as athletes before the 2010 assassination of Mahmud al Mabhuh in Dubai.
    Security video shows Mossad agents dressed as athletes before the 2010 assassination of Mahmud al Mabhuh in Dubai.

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