Twelve years after he survived Bibi Netanhayu’s attempt to assassinate him, Khalid Mishal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, holds meetings with Jimmy Carter, and gives interviews to the Wall Street Journal.
Khalid Mishal is also key to a peaceful Israeli future, if only Netanyahu would pay attention to what he is saying.
When Mishal talked with Carter in Damascus, Syria, in April of this year, he told the former U.S. president that Hamas was ready to talk peace with Israel. On August 1, he sent the same message to President Barack Obama through an interview he gave to two Wall Street Journal reporters, Jay Solomon and Julien Barnes Daceu:
The chief of Palestinian militant group Hamas said his organization is prepared to cooperate with the U.S. in promoting a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict if the White House can secure an Israeli settlement freeze and a lifting of the economic and military blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In September, 1997, there was talk of peace between Israel and Palestine. Bibi Netanyahu was in his first term as Israel’s prime minister. Following the Oslo Accords, Yasir Arafat returned from Libya to his Palestinian national capital in Gaza. He had received clearance to return with the understanding that he would “keep his people under control”.
Working under the handicap of having to lead his people and to act, at the same time, as Israel’s”new sheriff in town”, Arafat struggled, a revolutionary ill-equipped to run a government. He got very little support from either the U.S. or Israel.
So little cooperation that instead of working to build bridges with the Palestinian people, Israel continued its settlement building projects. In March, 1997, construction began on a massive new Israeli housing settlement lining the highway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Bulldozers destroyed thick forests east of the road to Bethlehem, eradicating “green space” long cherished by Palestinians, and known to them as Jabal Abu Ghaniam,. What was once a mountain became, once stripped bare, another red-roofed, sprawling illegal Israeli settlement which Israelis call Har Homa.
Jordan’s King Hussein was outraged at the Har Homa construction. He had signed a risky peace agreement with Israel. His Jordanian Security Forces were cooperating with both Israeli and U.S. security forces. His attempts to cooperate were treated with disdain.
Into that environment of deception and duplicity, Israel launched another attack, this time on the life of a major Palestinian politial leader.
On Thursday, September 25, 1997, on a sidewalk in Amman, Jordan, a team of Israeli assassins tried, but failed, to kill Hamas political bureau director, Khalid Mishal.
The plan to kill the 42-year-old Mishal was virtually fool proof. The Mossad team had staged a practice attack on a Tel Aviv street in which two men walking on the sidewalk, would appear to have accidently bumped into the target, shoving him to the sidewalk. One of the killers was to inject poison into the target’s ear.
Bibi Netanyahu had seen a film of the rehearsal. He approved the assassination and gave the order to Mossad Director Danny Yaton, “Kill Khalid”.
This Spring, 12 years after the failed assassination attempt, Australian journalist Paul McGeough has published a meticulously well-crafted account of the street attack and its aftermath in Kill Khalid: The Failed Mossad Assassination of Khalid Mishal and the Rise of Hamas. (The New Press, 2009).
The book races along like a spy thriller, starring real-life leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, President Bill Clinton, the King of Jordan, and Khalid Mishal, whose near-death experience in Amman projected him into his current role as the leader of the Hamas political bureau.
This is a story of intrigue, deceit, plot twists, villains and heroes that cries out to be made into a movie. And yet, just as the events of 1997 were largely ignored by mainstream media, McGeough’s 2009 book has received limited attention, with a few exceptions, all available on line: Jane Adas, in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; Adam Shatz, in the London Review; and Greg Myre, in the Washington Post.
Kill Khalid is actually two books in one, the failed assassination and its aftermath, and the history of Hamas, which McGeough tells through the life of Khalid, who was born in the Palestinian village of Silwad, sixteen miles north of Jerusalem. Khalid was 11 in June, 1967 when Fatima, his mother, took her children across the River Jordan during the Six Day War.
Yelling over the noise of the rattling truck on which they found themselves, she attempted to give the frightened children a simple explanation for this upheaval. “The Jews have taken our land,” she said.
As they finally reached the river crossing, there was congestion and more panic when all were forced to abandon their vehicles. The old Allenby Bridge had been bombed and gaping holes in the timber planking made it impassable to cars. . . Fatima and her children left their homeland on foot, inching across the river into Jordan.” (McGeough, page 5).
McGeough picks up the story 30 years later where by September, 1997, Mishal had become an important Hamas leader that Israel wanted to kill.
They struck on Thursday, September 25, 1997. It was just after ten AM–and they botched everything. Had they been successful, Mishal would have gone home and died quietly; the agents would have been on their way home too, over the Allenby Bridge on the Jordan River and back in Jerusalem for a celebratory lunch.
Instead, two of the Israelis were soon languishing in dank cells under an Amman security complex and the others were hunkering at the Israeli Embassy–which, incredibly for a supposedly friendly mission, was locked down by a menacing cordon of Jordianian troops.
King Hussein of Jordan could rise to the occasion in a crisis. Filled with rage, he fired a shot across the Israeli prime minister’s bow, warning Benjamin Netanyahu that his Mossad men would hang if Mishal died.
More deliberately, Hussein then picked up a phone and placed a call. It was answered across the world where a woman with a sweet voice answered: “Good morning. Welcome to the White House.”
The attack on Khalid Mishal was an Israeli failure of monumental proportions. In his book, McGeough not only exposes Israel’s failure at attempted murder; he also reveals the diplomatic morass into which the failed assassination plunged all the major players in the ongoing struggle for and against Palestinian independence.
Mossad’s decision to deliver the drug into Mishal’s ear was based on the assumption that while the team wanted Mishal dead, they also wanted the drug to act slowly. Mishal was supposed to die a few hours after the “innocent” street encounter and, ideally, at home or in a hospital.
But the plan had a fatal flaw. The slow acting drug–a synthetic opiate called Fentanyl that leaves no trace in the blood stream– would cause Mishal to die hours away from the time of the attack. But those hours also became the hours during which he might be saved.
What would save Mishal’s life was an antidote that had to be injected immediately. The Mossad team was traveling with what would save Mishal, an antidote inside the medical kit of a female doctor traveling with the team. She was in Amman to save the life of any of the Mossad assassins who might have been accidentally exposed to the drug.
During the critical hours after the attack, King Hussein was told the assassins had an antidote with them.
He demanded that Netanyahu provide the antidote to the Jordanian doctors then fighting to keep Mishal alive. Netanyahu hesitated. His approval would guarantee the failure of the Mossad mission. King Hussein was unrelenting. The antidote was delivered.
McGeough tells this story in such a chilling style that the book must be read to fully grasp the complex drama in which King Hussein was a central figure.
The King was not finished with Bibi. He demanded that President Bill Clinton give Jordan his absolute promise that not only would Israel be forced to deliver the antidote but Netanyahu would also be forced to accept whatever the King demanded before the Israeli Mossad agents would be allowed to return safely to Israel.
The demands were humiliating to Israel, a boost for Hamas, a loss for Arafat, Israel’s in-house ally, and a guarantee that King Hussein would be protected from appearing weak in his dealings with Israel and the U.S.
King Hussein knew, and Netanyahu should have known, that to kill a guest in the kingdom was not only damaging to the peace process, it was also an insult to King Hussein, It was a further insult for the act to be carried out by Mossad, the agency with which Hussein thought he was working in harmony. The entire episode felt to the King like someone had “spit in my face.”
The King’s demands were absolute. In exchange for the antidote to save Mishal’s life and the release of the Mossad agents from their prison cells in Jordan, Israel was forced to agree to release their leading Hamas prisoner, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual founder of Hamas, who was at that moment sitting in a wheel chair in Israeli’s Kfr Yona Prison under a life sentence. Other lesser known Palestinian and Jordanian prisoners were also to be set free.
Bibi Netanyahu paid a heavy personal and political price for Mossad’s failure. He lost his next election as prime minister. Danny Yatom, was dismissed as Mossad director after Jordan’s intelligence chief, General Samih Battikhi, refused to work with Israel as long as Yatom remained as Mossad’s leader.
Netanyahu did not suffer greatly in the American media. which played down or ignored the story. But one that got through the Israel Lobby’s “wall of ignorance” had to hurt. Under the heading, “Bibi the Bumbler”, Jonathan Broder wrote in Salon.com, October 7, 1997, less than two weeks after the attack:
It is being called the worst fiasco in the history of Israel’s once-vaunted intelligence service, the Mossad. It raises, once again, serious questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mental fitness. It provoked unprecedented expressions of disgust from the Clinton administration — “we loathe him,” one White House official remarked — and left experienced observers to wonder what other disastrous pratfalls the Israeli leader has in store for the dying Middle East peace process.
Other than a few scattered attacks, the “worst fiasco” soon disappeared, shoved aside by Israel’s pretentious preening as peace makers, protecting the world from “terrorism”.
McGeough’s book does not end with the failure and the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt. He provides a valuable history of the Hamas as it achieved political status in the Occupied Territories. Despite Hamas’ success in politics, Israel and its U.S. allies still viewed Hamas as a terrorist entity.
In the early hours of March 22, 2004, six and a half years after they were forced to release him from an Israeli prison, the Israelis “finally succeeded in their attempts to assassinate Sheikh Ahmad Yassin with a spectacular dawn strike on his wheelchair by Israeli helicopters.”
He was an easy target. In his late sixties, Yassin rarely left home, except to be pushed and pulled in his wheelchair by family minders and bodyguards as they took him to pray five times a day at the nearby Islamic Associaton Mosque, which had been the first activist hub in Hamas’s early days in Gaza.
On this Monday morning the AH-64 Apache gunships swung in from the north, shredding Yassin’s body when he took a direct hit from one of their missiles fired as he left the mosque after dawn prayers.
Spitting short slivers of metal, which local children later rushed to gather for souvenirs, the missiles punctured sharp holes in the footpath, about the size of an American quarter. Lethal enough to cut through a steel door on a nearby building, they killed seven others who were close by.” McGeough, p 286).
Three weeks after Yassin’s assassination, Israel’s AH-64 Apache helicopter killed a second Hamas leader, Abdul Azziz Al-Rantisi, striking his white Subaru with two missiles “just before eight o’clock on a Saturday night. The car was mangled; two bodyguards and one of Rantisi’s sons were dead.” Rantisi was badly injured, and died a few hours later in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital.
Khalidi Mishal is now the uncontested leader of the Hamas political movement. And he is ready to talk peace.
Barack Obama will face important choices on the Middle East in the next twelve months. He may choose to follow Israel’s lead and treat Hamas as nothing but a “terrorist” group, or he could acknowledge that Khalid Mishal and Bibi Netanyahu are meeting now as political foes at a moment of history which has the potential to enter a peaceful future.
If he wants help in making that choice, I urge him to read Adam Shatz’ review of Paul McGeough’s book, which concludes:
Hamas is part of the fabric of Palestinian politics, and neither force nor diplomatic isolation will make it go away. Its history is one of tenacity in the face of enormous odds: it has been nourished by the efforts to destroy it. No one is in a better position to appreciate this than Israel’s new prime minister who, once again, finds himself facing the martyr who would not die.
An Apology: In the initial posting above, the headline misspelled the name Khalid by adding an “i”, which is incorrect. The correct name of Khalid Mishal was used throughout the body of the posting. This was a typo for which the writer sincerely apologizes. Thanks to those alert readers who corrected the mistake. As you will see above, the correct spelling is now in place in the headline. Jim Wall
Pictures above: Khalidi Mishal from The Wall Street Journal; Paul McGeough picture by Jane Adas. from the Washington Review.