JERUSALEM: Lifting a nearly 25-year veil of secrecy, Israel acknowledged Thursday that it killed the deputy of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a 1988 seaborne raid on Tunisia.
Two of those involved in the operation now hold high political office, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon. At the time, Barak was deputy military chief, and Yaalon was head of the Sayeret Matkal unit. Their precise roles in the operation were not divulged, and both men's offices declined comment.
Israel has long been suspected of assassinating Khalil al-Wazir, who was better known by his nom de guerre Abu Jihad. But only now has the country's military censor cleared the Yediot Ahronot daily to publish the information, including an interview with the commando who killed him, at least 12 years after the newspaper got the information.
"I shot him with a long burst of fire," the now-deceased commando Nahum Lev told Yediot. "I was careful not to hurt his wife, who had showed up there. He died," Lev told Yediot prior to his death in a motorcycle accident in 2000. "Abu Jihad was involved in horrible acts against civilians. He was a dead man walking. I shot him without hesitation."
Dozens of similar operations have been attributed to Israel over the decades. But Israel rarely takes responsibility, and this public acknowledgement gives a rare glimpse into its covert operations.
Abu Jihad founded the Palestine Liberation Organization with Arafat and was blamed for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis. Among them, he masterminded a 1978 attack on an Israeli bus that killed 38 Israelis. Later, he organized the first Palestinian uprising against Israel, which began in December 1987.
The following April, Israel killed him.
According to the Yediot report, the operation was a joint effort by the Mossad secret service and the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal.
From a command post on an Israeli boat in the Mediterranean Sea, 26 Israeli commandos reached the shores of the North African nation of Tunisia on rubber boats.
Lev, the commando, approached Abu Jihad's home in the capital Tunis with another soldier who was dressed as a woman. The two pretended to be a vacationing couple, with Lev carrying what appeared to be a large box of chocolates. Inside the box, however, was a gun fitted with a silencer.
Upon encountering the first of Abu Jihad's bodyguards, Lev drew his weapon and shot the man in the head. Another team killed a separate bodyguard and a gardener before entering the expansive villa. Lev's partner was the first to fire at the Palestinian leader. When Lev noticed Abu Jihad reaching for a weapon he shot and killed him.
It was not clear why Israel's military censor permitted publication of the report now, at least 12 years after the paper got the interview with the commando. The censor has authority to block publication of material deemed a threat to national security.
The Palestinians have long accused Israel of being behind the assassination. Nonetheless, Abbas Zaki, a top official in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, said the Palestinians and Tunisia should now "work to bring Israel to justice."