Slain Hamas commander helped smuggle arms into Gaza, officials say

By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

JERUSALEM – A Hamas military commander slain in a Dubai hotel room played a key role in smuggling antiaircraft missiles and other weapons into the Gaza Strip, Israeli and Hamas officials said Sunday.

But they disagreed on whether Mahmoud Mabhuh’s death would deliver a blow to Palestinian armed groups in the seaside enclave or inspire them to redouble their arms campaign.

“This guy was a middleman for smuggling weapons from Iran, not only to Gaza but to Hezbollah” in Lebanon, said an Israeli military official speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved.

Among other things, Mabhuh, believed to be about 50, was suspected of helping to run an arms-smuggling route through Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. One of the arms convoys was bombed in Sudan last year, reportedly by Israeli aircraft.

Israel has refused to comment on Hamas’ allegation it was behind the Jan. 20 assassination of Mabhuh. Details of the killing remain murky, with conflicting reports suggesting he was electrocuted, strangled, poisoned or injected with a drug that made his heart stop. Initially Hamas reported he died from a medical condition.

Israeli officials said they hoped Mabhuh’s death would slow the flow of arms into Gaza.

“Of course, the moment a guy like this is dead, there is always someone to replace him,” the military official said. “But information (about arms-smuggling routes) is usually kept very secret. You have to renew the connections, rebuild the trust. It takes some time to grow into his shoes. It shakes the whole system.”

Hamas officials in Gaza declined to comment on Mabhuh’s role in the organization other than to confirm he helped plan the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989.

But a Hamas official in Syria called Mabhuh an important military leader who helped bring “special weapons” into Gaza.

Mabhuh “played a key role in supplying the Palestinian people with weapons and money,” Talal Nasser, a Hamas spokesman in Damascus, told the National, a Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based newspaper. “His central role in the 2008-2009 Gaza war was clear.”

Nasser said the slaying would only strengthen his organization.

“His murder is not a victory for Israel,” Nasser said. “It is a victory for the resistance. The blood of Mahmoud al Mabhuh will spawn a thousand more like him.”