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Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior figure in Hamas' military wing and wanted by Israel for more than 20 years, was assassinated in Dubai on January 20, Hamas said yesterday.

The killing of Mabhouh, considered to be a key player in arms smuggling to Hamas, has been linked to four men carrying European passports who have since managed to leave the country.

Mabhouh is believed to have been electrocuted and then strangled to death. At the end of a low-profile investigation that lasted more than a week, Hamas blamed Israel on Friday for the assassination and vowed revenge. Israel has not commented on the charges.

Mabhouh, 50, a resident of the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, fled the territory some 20 years ago because of his involvement in the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers, Avi Sasportas and Ilan Sa'adon. He worked out of Damascus and coordinated efforts to smuggle Iranian arms to Hamas in the Strip. His family says that Israel tried to assassinate him a number of times in the past.

Mabhouh arrived in Dubai on Tuesday, January 19, at 3 P.M. Dubai police said he entered the country "from another Arab state." Talal Nasser, Hamas' official representative in Damascus, told news news agencies that Mabhouh traveled to the Gulf on Hamas business.

During the night between January 19 and 20, four men are believed to have entered his hotel room and killed him. His body was found the next day at noon by hotel employees. It can be assumed that the assassination was preceded by a drawn-out operation that involved intelligence gathering and surveillance in the Gulf and Syria.

Reports on the circumstances of his death are partial and contradictory. Nasser claimed that Mabhouh was poisoned and electrocuted to death. His brother, Faiq, told Haaretz in a telephone interview Friday from Jabalya that the Hamas operative was electrocuted and then strangled. Hamas says the assassins tortured Mabhouh before killing him in an effort to extricate intelligence from him. The group says there were burn marks on his body.

Faiq al-Mabhouh said Israel had targeted his brother at least twice in the past. Six months ago, he claims, Mabhouh was poisoned during a visit to Dubai and was unconscious for 36 hours. In 2004, the day Iz al-Din Sheikh Khalil, a senior Hamas figure also involved in arms smuggling, was killed in Damascus, security cameras in Mabhouh's home showed a bomb under his vehicle, and he escaped.

The official statement issued by the Dubai authorities stated that the assassination was the work of "a group of professional criminals, some of them holders of European passports." It said that they had departed the country before the body was discovered.

Dubai police chief Dahi Khalfan said that the identity of the suspects has been determined and Interpol has been contacted. He said the police had photocopies of the suspects' passports.

The daily Al-Hayat, which is published in London, quoted a Dubai security source who said the murderers would be arrested with Interpol's help because they left evidence behind. According to satellite television station Al Jazeera, the Dubai police are considering whether the Mossad was behind the assassination.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Jazeera that several days before the assassination, Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau made an official visit to Dubai's neighbor, Abu Dhabi. Zahar argued that members of Landau's entourage had been involved in the killing.

Hamas issued a statement on Mabhouh's death the day after the assassination, but at first claimed that he died of a "muscular disease." Hamas suspected that the incident had been an Israeli assassination, but only said so officially on Friday. The group attributed the statement's delay to the ongoing investigation to determine who was responsible.

Faiq al-Mabhouh said that at first the family was told that his older brother had been killed and that the circumstances were under investigation.

"It was clear to me that it involved his duties, and that it was not natural causes," he told Haaretz. "A medical crew checked him and blood samples were taken to a French hospital. On Thursday night the results came in and they determined that he was killed, first by electrocution, which stunned him, and then by strangulation. Because Mahmoud worked behind the scenes he did not have a bodyguard. In any case, we are in no doubt that the Mossad is behind the act."

The making of a terrorist

Mahmoud Abd al-Rauf al-Mabhouh, was born on February 14, 1960 in Jabalya. He joined the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s in the Gaza Strip, and was considered very pious. During the 1980s he tried to sabotage coffee shops in the Strip where gambling was taking place.

In 1986 he was arrested for the first time by Israeli security forces for possession of an assault rifle.

After his release he joined Hamas' founders and became part of the organization's military wing. In the Hamas statement Friday, Mabhouh was described as having been involved in the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. Israel arrested or killed most of those involved in the two murders.

Mabhouh managed to flee Gaza in May 1989 after a failed attempt by undercover Israeli commandos to arrest him. His brother Faiq was injured from shots fired during the incident and was arrested.

Faiq was released from prison two years ago. In prison he became a dominant figure among the Hamas inmates and served as their spokesman. He met regularly with Israeli reporters and was unusually well-versed in Israeli society, politics and even music.

On Friday he told Haaretz that his brother never ceased jihad, even when he went abroad. But he also said that the family did not know exactly what his role in the organization was.

Indeed, Mabhouh was very active in the organization, mostly in the smuggling of arms delivered from Iran to Gaza, starting with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. He worked with a small team to coordinate the smuggling of hundreds of tons of arms and explosives, mainly by sea from southern Iran to Egypt and then through Sinai and the tunnels under Rafah to the Strip.

During the past year, efforts by Israel and other countries have substantially stemmed the flow of smuggled arms to Gaza. The assassination of Mabhouh is expected to slow the flow even more.

Hamas vows revenge

Hamas' politburo chief in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, spoke over Mabhouh's coffin; he said that the organization "would avenge the blood of the man who fought against you [Israel] for 30 years ... armed the resistance and assisted it day and night."

Addressing Israel, Meshal said: "You have assassinated an enormous man who bravely killed some of your soldiers, but this is a passing joy. If you think that we have given up the option of resistance you are deluding yourselves. Resistance is what we choose. I tell you, Zionists, do not be joyous. You killed him, but his sons will fight you."

Mabhouh's funeral was held at the Yarmouk refugee camp near the Syrian capital, and more than 2,000 people attended, including many in the Hamas leadership.

What next?

One of the surprising aspects of the assassination is that it was carried out in the Gulf. Israel has relations on various levels with Gulf States, so if it was involved in the killing, it is risking the future of these ties. The operation in its territory has been an embarrassment for Dubai.

Another problem is that Hamas is threatening to avenge the killing with an operation abroad. To date Hamas has been steadfast in avoiding such actions, believing that the war against Israel must be carried out in Palestine.

However, similar threats were heard after the assassination of senior figures in the organization, and nothing happened. Moreover, the group recently announced that it does not seek an escalation in the Gaza Strip, which suggests that rocket attacks on Israel are unlikely. Suicide bombings have become much more difficult as a result of the blow Hamas suffered last year.

If this was an Israeli operation, as Hamas claims, it is most likely linked to a clear and present danger, and not in payback for past actions.

Regarding abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the assassination signals to Hamas' leaders that holding him is no insurance policy.