The international reaction to the murder in his Dubai hotel room a month ago of Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and the sensational revelations that have followed, constitute a near- universal exercise in hypocrisy.
Let’s begin with Dubai. It is the region’s main sanctions-busting transshipment station for Iran and its banks a laundering station for drug money from Afghanistan. None of this in the least disturbs Dubai Police Chief Dahi Khalfan as he vents his outrage at a murder he attributes with 99 percent certainty to the Mossad. In reality, for all his media bravado, he appears to have no hard evidence whatsoever linking Israel or any other actor to the actual deed. His sensational CCTV shots of disguised assassins may have "burned" a couple dozen fake identities, but if he passed the real assassins in the street tomorrow he wouldn’t recognize them.
Then there is Syria, from whence Mabhouh traveled to Dubai on one of several passports Damascus conveniently supplied him. Dubai’s threats against European governments whose passports were forged or adapted for this operation apparently don’t apply to Syria. Indeed, Khalfan complained that, had he known Mabhouh’s real identity when the latter arrived in Dubai, the police would have protected this arch terrorist. In any event, that Syria hosts Hamas and forges passports for it, even as it reasserts its hegemony over Lebanon and hosts an Iran-Hizballah-Hamas summit in Damascus–doesn’t appear to even scratch its new Teflon image in European eyes.
Apropos Europe and its growing fury over the abuse of its passports, this is not the first time Israel has been accused of doctoring them. In the past, these issues blew over very quickly–about as fast as it reportedly took the UK embassy in Tel Aviv to offer to issue new passports to the dual Israeli-UK citizens whose identities were compromised in Dubai. Certainly, European intelligence circles that depend on Israel for information and early warning about Islamist terrorism are likely to lobby to ignore the transgression.
Here there is also a second hypocrisy factor. European governments, including Britain, France and Germany whose passports were used in Dubai, have for years been releasing captured terrorists to avoid "complications", buy favors with Middle East terrorist movements and purchase discount oil from radical governments. They know they themselves should be doing more against the two Islamist emirates on the Mediterranean, Hamas and Hizballah, and their Iranian patron.
Yet there is a hypocrisy issue in Israel as well when it comes to Hamas. However justified the death of the man in charge of military contacts between Hamas and Iran, the media festival in Israel over his departure should not be allowed to obfuscate the broader picture.
Israel’s overall security benefits from Mabhouh’s elimination not only in terms of disrupting Hamas-Iran security cooperation but also as a deterrent against other Hamas officials operating abroad. It is clear to Hamas that the ingenuity and sophistication that were invested in locating and tracking Mabhouh were not a one-time investment. It was enough to watch the panicked appearance of Hamas leaders on TV when the murder was first confirmed three weeks ago to appreciate the fear it has instilled in an organization that preaches Israel’s destruction and deliberately attacks its civilian population. Parallel revelations in a new book published in America by the "green prince", the son of a Hamas leader who spied for Israel for years, sent his father to prison and thwarted dozens of suicide attacks, also signal Hamas that there is dissent within its ranks.
On the other hand, the Dubai assassination (along with a previous, little noticed assassination of a Hamas senior operative in Beirut) moves the struggle against Hamas abroad. Hamas has vowed to take revenge. Until now, it has not operated against Israel outside of Israel/Palestine. That could now conceivably change, to Israel’s detriment.
Further, the assassination contributes–given that it is nearly universally attributed to Israel–not only to Israel’s image as a global anti-terrorist superstar, but also unfortunately to its growing reputation of lawlessness and disregard for international norms. In this sense, like Israel’s undoubted military achievements against Hamas in Gaza a year ago, this assassination fuels a nasty international campaign to delegitimize Israel. Israelis can no longer take this "Goldstone effect" lightly.
Finally, the murder in Dubai must not be allowed to conceal the most fundamental question concerning Hamas and Israel. The assassination of a Hamas bad guy might be a lot more understandable if Israel had a rational and constructive overall strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. But it doesn’t. Israeli security circles appear to be willfully ignoring the failure of all the strategies they have invoked in recent years.
The use of force against non-state actors like Hamas does achieve deterrence, but only temporarily. Economic warfare–the prolonged siege of Gaza and closing of its borders to commerce–has failed to topple or even weaken the Hamas regime there. It has inflicted collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans and has impoverished the moderate middle class and farmers who used to depend on Israel for trade while empowering Hamas and nouveau riche tunnel operators. Reliance on Egypt to mediate between Israel and Gaza has generated few if any benefits. Cairo’s strategy of making sure Gaza is Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s, hardly renders it an honest broker.
All these strategies, which form the backdrop to the Dubai events, have proven counter-productive. At least Israel is in good company. It can take comfort in the blessing given by the Quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia) to the economic boycott of Gaza. And its military response a year ago got a wink and a nod from the moderate Arabs, including the PLO, who themselves have no solutions for Hamas and what it represents.
But at the end of the day, Egypt is right: Hamas is Israel’s problem. Beyond the clouds of hypocrisy, the death of Mabhouh is a very partial and temporary solution.