Britain has expelled an Israeli diplomat after concluding that Israel had forged British passports used by the suspected killers of a Hamas commander in Dubai. “I’ve asked that a member of the Embassy of Israel be withdrawn from the UK as a result of this affair and this is taking place,” Foreign Secretary David Miliband told Parliament.
Israel has neither confirmed nor denied a role in the January killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a military commander from the Palestinian organization Hamas, in a Dubai hotel room. Dubai authorities have given names for 27 alleged members of the team that tracked and killed the Palestinian, and said they used fraudulent British, Irish, French, German and Australian passports to enter and leave Dubai.
Miliband said there were “compelling reasons” to believe Israel was responsible for forging the 12 British passports used and said he had sought assurances from Israel that it would not do so again.
“Such misuse of British passports is intolerable … It also represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom,” he said. Miliband did not accuse Israel of being responsible for the killing.
Israel said it regretted Britain’s decision. “We attribute great importance to relations with Britain,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement. “We have received no evidence pointing to Israeli involvement in the matter (Mabhouh’s assassination),” he said.
An Israeli official said there would be no tit-for-tat reaction by Israel. “There will be no retaliatory measures by Israel and no British diplomats will be expelled,” said the official, who declined to be named. Dubai’s police chief has said he is almost certain Israeli agents were involved and has accused the intelligence agency Mossad of insulting Dubai.
Britain’s move could put pressure on other countries whose passports were cloned to take similar action, analysts said. Miliband said a British police investigation concluded that the fake passports were copied from genuine British passports when these were handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or elsewhere.
“Given that this was a very sophisticated operation in which high-quality forgeries were made, the government judges it is highly likely the forgeries were made by a state intelligence service,” he said. Miliband declined to identify the Israeli diplomat who would leave or his rank but told Sky News: “He was chosen by us and it was based on the investigations that we have undertaken.” Britain amended its travel advice for Israel, recommending British visitors only give their passports to other people, including Israeli officials, “when absolutely necessary”.
In the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Islamist movement Hamas said the expulsion proved that Britain holds Israel responsible for the Dubai assassination. “Britain’s decision to expel the Israeli diplomat is, in addition to previously uncovered proof, clear evidence of the involvement of the Israeli occupation in the assassination of martyr Mahmoud al-Mabhouh,” said Sami Abu Zuhr.
Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at London think-tank Chatham House, said Britain was in effect accusing Israel of ordering Mabhouh’s killing, but Faysal Itani, of consultants Exclusive Analysis, called the expulsion a “slap on the wrist”. Britain expelled an Israeli diplomat in 1988 in an espionage row. The man, Arie Regev, was described at the time by informed British sources as a Mossad agent.
In 1997, Canada briefly withdrew its ambassador from Israel after a bungled attempt in Jordan by Mossad agents, using false Canadian passports, to assassinate a Hamas leader.
British-Israeli trade was worth 3.33 billion pounds ($4.99 billion) in 2008. But relations have been strained recently by the threat of arrest for alleged war crimes faced by senior Israeli officials visiting Britain.
The latest spat comes at a time of friction between Israel and its key ally, the United States, since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government announced plans to build 1,600 homes for Jews near East Jerusalem.