Jihad leader took just one risk too many

Fathi Shkaki's casual attitude to his own safety aided his assassins' task, writes Patrick Cockburn

Jerusalem - The assassins of Fathi Shkaki, leader of Islamic Jihad, had long been preparing to kill him during his repeated visits to Malta. Their task was made easier by his lack of concern for his own safety.

The number-plate on the motor cycle used for the killer's escape and later found under a bridge was stolen several months ago in Malta, according to Israeli press reports.

They say a motor cycle was probably used because of the heavy traffic in Valletta at lunch time, when the assassination took place.

The most surprising detail to emerge is that Shkaki, who must have known he was the man most wanted by Mossad, the Israeli foreign security agency, stayed in the same hotel nine times in recent years. Although he had a Libyan passport under the name of Ibrahim Shawish, had shaved off his beard and was wearing a wig, Shkaki does not appear to have varied his itinerary.

He checked into room 616 at the Diplomat Hotel in a suburb of Valletta last Thursday morning. He had a ticket to return home to Damascus the following day.

Before lunch he walked to some nearby shops to buy shirts for his children. As he returned to his hotel he was shot six times in the head with a silenced pistol, according to the Israeli reports. The assassin was driven away on the motor cycle by a second man.

The motorcycle was abandoned 10 minutes later at the jetty of a yacht harbour. Investigators believe the killers were taken off by boat. No fingerprints were found on the bike.

Israeli press reports focus on the professional skill of the assassins, who are assumed to belong to Mossad, but Shkaki evidently had a relaxed attitude to his own security.

Islamic Jihad has promised an attack to avenge the death of its leader but the Israeli government is playing down the assassination. Asked about it yesterday during the Middle East and North Africa economic conference in Amman, Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, told reporters: "Oh, leave it aside. We deal with the major problems of peace in the Middle East." He said earlier he was "certainly not sorry" Shkaki was dead.

In order not to disrupt the conference, Israel has not sealed off Gaza and the occupied West Bank totally, which has been its reaction in other security alerts. Instead, the army raised the age of Gaza workers allowed into Israel from 30 to 35, barred all students and vehicles from leaving the enclave and said no permits would be issued for Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem to go to Israel.

It is unlikely that the measures will stop retaliation by Islamic Jihad, whose prestige has always depended on its efficiency in mounting damaging attacks on Israelis. It is impossible to seal the West Bank. At the same time, Palestinians there do not want the withdrawal of Israeli troops from urban centres over the next two months to be delayed by another suicide bomb or assassination.

Israeli reports say Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, the new leader of the organisation, is likely to be as militant as his predecessor. They say from the late 1980s until last year Mr Shalah was based in Britain, co-ordinating contacts between Islamic Jihad in Syria and Gaza. His brother is serving 25 years in a Palestinian prison for recruiting the suicide bombers who killed 21 Israeli soldiers in January.

Obituary, page 14

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