Mike's Place Terrorists Got a Lift Into Israel With Italian Reporter

The terrorists who committed the suicide bombing at Mike's Place on April 29 crossed from Gaza into Israel with the aid of an Italian journalist, according to details of the investigation that were revealed yesterday when a court-imposed gag order was lifted.

The terrorists who committed the suicide bombing at Mike's Place on April 29 crossed from Gaza into Israel with the aid of an Italian journalist, according to details of the investigation that were revealed yesterday when a court-imposed gag order was lifted.

The bombing, which killed three people, was committed by two British citizens of Pakistani origin, Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif.

According to the details released for publication by the Tel Aviv District Court, Hanif and Sharif were recruited by Hamas in Damascus, where they had studied before coming to Israel. The two traveled to Israel via Jordan, crossing the Allenby Bridge on April 12, and then proceeded to travel throughout the country, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, without hindrance. In Gaza, they finalized plans for the attack with Hamas leaders in the Strip and created a "cover" for themselves by posing as left-wing activists and attending events sponsored by the International Solidarity Movement.

The biggest problem they faced was how to cross from Gaza back into Israel once they were ready to carry out the attack. They solved this problem with the aid of an Italian journalist, who offered them a ride through the checkpoint in her car together with some other Italian journalists.

At the time, foreign journalists were allowed to pass through checkpoints virtually without inspection, so this assistance enabled the two to slip through undiscovered. It is because of this incident that Israel has since tightened the rules for foreign journalists and now does insist on subjecting them to checkpoint inspections.

The Italian journalist was interrogated by the police and the Shin Bet security service, but apparently had no idea that the two were terrorists. She has since left the country.

The left-wing activists with whom Sharif and Hanif hung out in Gaza have also been interrogated, and some have been deported. However, they, too, appear to have been unaware that the two were terrorists.

Contrary to the security services' initial assessment, Hanif and Sharif apparently did not bring their bombs with them when they came from Jordan. Shortly after the attack, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had announced that the explosives were smuggled through the Allenby Bridge crossing in a Koran. But after further investigation, the security services have concluded that the two probably obtained the bombs in Gaza. The scanners at the Allenby Bridge are highly sophisticated and would almost certainly have detected any explosives; it would have been much easier to get a bomb past the less sophisticated scanners at the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza.

Another initial assessment that further investigation seems to have refuted is that the attack was aided by an international terrorist organization, such as Hezbollah or even Al-Qaida. The official statement released last night said merely that the security services have been unable to prove any international involvement, but the unofficial conclusion is that the bombing was apparently a homegrown production by Hamas in Gaza.

The masterminds were probably Mohammed Def, who heads Hamas's military wing in the Strip, and his deputy, Wayil Nasser, who has planned most of this cell's attacks since Def was injured in an Israeli assassination attempt last year.

One worrying discovery that emerged from the investigation is that the bomb used in the attack was assembled via a highly sophisticated technique that is used almost exclusively by armies and intelligence services, and almost never by terrorist organizations. The question that arises from this is whether Hamas now has the capability of making this type of bomb on a regular basis.

The information released yesterday also revealed that the Shin Bet was warned about the planned attack shortly before it occured.

The warning stated that foreign citizens intended to commit an attack in the central region within the next few hours, but did not include details such as the terrorists' names or where they could be found. Pursuant to this warning, the police presence in the area was beefed up, but the security services never managed to find the terrorists.

Hanif and Sharif spent most of their time in Tel Aviv at a small hostel called Hayarkon 48 on Hayarkon Street. According to the proprietors, it may be there that they obtained the idea of making Mike's Place their target. During several days of their stay, a large poster prominently displayed on the lobby bulletin board invited hotel guests to musical evenings at a nearby pub, Mike's Place.

The hotel's owner, Omri Gur-Lavie, said the two never aroused any suspicions in the hotel staff. "After all, they presented British passports and spoke perfect English," he said. "There was not a hint of Arabic, other than their names."

But Sharif evidently stopped seeming innocent after he discovered a problem with his explosive belt en route to the attack and decided to turn back, leaving Hanif to carry out the bombing alone. Sharif went first to the nearby David Intercontinental Hotel, where he immediately aroused the suspicions of the security guard, who physically barred him from entering and called the police. It is not known why Sharif wanted to enter the hotel, though one theory proposed by the police is that he was trying to obtain a gun.

Next, Sharif tried to flag down a taxi, but the driver also became suspicious and forced him out of the vehicle, after which he also called the police. The police then embarked on a massive manhunt in the area, during which they found Sharif's explosive belt but not Sharif himself.

Sharif's whereabouts remained a mystery until two weeks later, when his body was discovered along the Tel Aviv coast. It is not known whether his death was accidental, due to exhaustion caused by his flight and his fights with the guard and the taxi driver, or whether he drowned himself deliberately because he saw no hope of escape.

The attack on Mike's Place will be remembered as a dismal failure on the part of the security services, which failed to detect anything suspicious when the terrorists entered Israel or at any of their numerous border crossings between Israel and the territories. As a result of this failure, security has been tightened at the Erez checkpoint and more stringent checks are being performed on left-wing activists and Palestinians with foreign passports who try to enter Israel.

Yet the attack was not necessarily a raging success from Hamas's viewpoint. Intelligence sources say that the organization's overseas leadership exerted massive pressure on the Gazan cell to carry out an attack inside Israel, hoping to prove that the security fence separating the Strip from Israel (and hence the parallel fence now being built in the West Bank) cannot really prevent attacks. Before then, not a single suicide bombing inside Israel had originated from Gaza.

Yet the enormous planning and effort that Hamas put into the attack - including recruiting the two Britons to circumvent the fence problem - in the end yielded only three deaths. That is undoubtedly far from the mass casualty attack that Def and Nasser intended.