Ugly end for man who laughed at death

Assassination in Valletta: Israeli agents suspected of a killing that is unlikely to halt the cycle of violence

ROBERT FISK

Cairo

The threats of revenge against Israel were as swift as they were inevitable. From both Damascus and Gaza came promises that the assassination in Malta of the small, bespectacled man who looked more like a schoolmaster than the leader of a radical Islamist group would cost the blood of Israelis. The killing of Fathi Shkaki, the Islamic Jihad movement announced in Syria, was "an appalling crime [which] will make every Zionist, wherever he is, a target of our strikes and of our bodies that will explode in anger".

Shkaki, a Cairo-trained medical doctor who spent three years in Israeli prisons before founding Islamic Jihad in 1981, was shot five times in the back outside a Valletta hotel on Thursday by gunmen whom his movement identified yesterday as members of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. He had sailed to Malta from the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after trying to persuade the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, to end his expulsion of Palestinian refugees, and was awaiting a flight back to Damascus when he was murdered.

Yesterday's threats were not to be taken lightly - nor was that sinister phrase "wherever he is", which means that vengeance would not be confined to Israel or the occupied West Bank. Only eight months ago, Shkaki sat in his office in Damascus, giggling as he talked about the work of two suicide bombers - one of whom he knew personally - who had slaughtered 20 Israelis at a bus stop north of Tel Aviv.

"We will continue our struggle [against Israel]," he said. "A few years ago we used knives. Three months ago, we used a bicycle bomb after Hani Abed [an Islamic Jihad journalist] was killed by Mossad. Now we have changed our style. As we progress, so we use more sophisticated ways. We know the Israelis are very sophisticated too ..." On Thursday, he discovered too late how determined they are - if, as few in the Middle East doubt, the Israelis were responsible.

Sophisticated or otherwise, the assassination of Palestinian leaders of any hue almost invariably leads to a bloodbath; Yasser Arafat himself, as head of a Palestinian Authority that now co-operates with Israeli intelligence services, knows well that his own officials could join an Islamic Jihad list of targets.

Last January, Shkaki laughed as he described his deportation from Israel in 1988, his meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini - he had visited Iran six times and acknowledged that Iran gave money to Islamic Jihad's "martyrs' foundation" - and his role as leader of an organisation which, he claimed, did not wish to set up an Islamic state but merely to "liberate all of Palestine". He lived in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus, where his widow Fathia and his two sons and daughter were preparing a wake yesterday in advance of his body's return.

His assassination in Malta does not mean that the head has been cut from the body of Islamic Jihad. Not only has a new leader - Ramadan Abdullah, a former Gaza schoolmaster - been appointed heir apparent, but Shkaki himself had insisted to me that he did not direct "military operations" from Damascus. "Ordering and planning is the affair of our mujahedin in Palestine," he said. "It is not logical to give orders or plan from outside. The way of Islamic Jihad is that this is done by the military leadership ..."

Shkaki was by no means an unintelligent man. He claimed to have read Shakespeare, Dante, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound and at one point quoted Hamlet at length. But a knowledge of European literature does not wipe the blood from a man's hands. A suicide bomber, he said, "is doomed to death, so he chooses the most beautiful death - he is doomed because of the position he was put in". His struggle was "a war" because "our mothers wept much, much more than Israeli mothers - this is the fruit of imperialism and colonialism by the West and by the Israelis ... We are not even attacking Jews or Israelis outside Palestine [sic]. We are only defending our right to live in our homeland ..."

Islamic Jihad's threat of retaliation yesterday suggested that vengeance could indeed now come "outside Palestine". But few around Shkaki would regard his assassination in the romantic light of which he once spoke. Being shot in the back in a Maltese street is very definitely not "a beautiful death".

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