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Mossad's Tunis Assassination of the PLO's "Abu Jihad"

Context and Consequence of the Killing of Khalil al-Wazir on April 16, 1988

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The PLO's Abu Jihad

The PLO's Khalil al Wazir, or Abu Jihad, who was assassinated by a Mossad operation in Tunis on April 16, 1988.

Photo: Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (passia.org)
The assassination of Palestinian leader, Fatah co-founder and military commander Khalil Al Wazir, or Abu Jihad—“Father of the Holy War”—at his home in Tunis on April 16, 1988, was one of the most spectacular hit jobs by Mossad in the Israeli secret service’s history. As Ian Black and Benny Morris described it in Israel’s Secret Wars, “It was a ruthless operation of unsurpassed technical brilliance that combined thorough intelligence with flawless execution.” It was also a pre-meditated murder indistinguishable in intent, if not quite in execution, from similar Palestinian operations on Israeli individuals.

Who Was Abu Jihad?

Abu Jihad posed a particular threat to Israel because of his military and diplomatic skills. He was Fatah’s military chief. He was also a great conciliator. In 1987, he was instrumental in re-unifying the seven factions of the PLO that had fractured after being driven from Lebanon in the 1982 war with Israel. He helped coordinate the secret Unified National leadership of the Palestinian movement that had turned into the first cohesive uprising against Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1987. He was instrumental in organizing nationalist organizations such as the Shabiba youth movement and through student councils in Palestinian universities, women’s organizations and trade unions. He was also an able fund-raiser, channeling money from Arab regimes to the West Bank and Gaza.

But Abu Jihad could also be a master terrorist. Intent on derailing the Egyptian-Israeli peace process that was verging on a treaty at the time, Abu Jihad was the mastermind behind the March 1978 attack on an Israeli bus, on the highway to Tel Aviv, that resulted in the killing of 37 Israelis and nine Palestinians, and the wounding of 70 Israelis, most of them civilian. Israel retaliated for the attack by invading Lebanon.

The Real Reason for the Assassination

For all that, the driving factor behind Abu Jihad’s assassination was another operation he’d masterminded—one that struck at the heart of Israeli pride and presumption: the ultra-secret nuclear-weapons installation at Dimona in the Negev desert. On March 7, 1988, three guerillas managed to hijack a passenger bus in the Negev that was transporting high-security-clearance employees to the Dimona complex. An anti-terrorist unit of the Israeli police assaulted the bus, killing the three hijackers and three Israeli employees, though the PLO declared the raid a victory.

Defense Minister Yizhak Rabin was enraged and ordered Mossad chief Nahum Admoni immediately to prepare an assassination, which would have two aims: To retaliate for the attack on Dimona, and to boost Israeli morale after four months of a violent Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories, against which Israel seemed powerless. Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Shamir and 10 other ministers were briefed on the operation, which would be led by Army Gen. Ehud Barak. Rabin gave the go-ahead for the operation on April 13.

The Assassination

The Mossad, Shin Bet and Aman—Israel’s spy trinity—had been tracking Abu Jihad for years. On April 15, 1988, the Israeli navy’s “Fleet 13” frogmen delivered 30 commando members of the Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit to a beach on the Tunisian shore aboard rubber dinghies. They linked up with seven Mossad agents who, traveling on fake Lebanese passports and speaking good Lebanese Arabic, had formed the advance party. They organized three transports to link up with the commandos and drive to Abu Jihad’s neighborhood, which they had studied and rehearsed through in mock-ups back in Israel.

Barak coordinated the operation with Israeli army chief of staff Dan Shomron from a Beoing 707 flying, officially, in international air space above the Mediterranean. The 707 was modified to be like the American AWACS, giving the operation overwhelming technological superiority. On the ground, the team was able to jam all telephone communications in Abu Jihad’s Sidi Boussaid neighborhood.

One team of commandos was responsible for controlling the outside of Abu Jihad’s villa. That team shot and killed Abu Jihad’s driver. The other team assaulted the house by breaking down the front door and immediately killing a Tunisian guard (they used silencers). Abu Jihad was at the top of a set of stairs, a small pistol in his hand. According to London’s Sunday Times, “He knew an Israeli hit team was in the country and was on the point of fleeing. But he made the fatal mistake of lingering in his home, watching a video of clashes on the West Bank, while the Israelis moved in for the kill.”

He’d been up late watching news reports of the intifada in the Occupied Territories. He never aimed. The four commandos shot 70 bullets into his body, nearly cutting off his right hand, which held the gun. Abu Jihad’s wife was in the villa (so were two of her five children, Nidal, 2, and their daughter, Hanan, 14), expecting to be shot. According to The Times account, “She turned to the wall, awaiting the bullets. Instead, she heard the gunmen yell to her daughter in Arabic: 'See to your mother,' before racing from the villa.”

Next page: The assassination's political consequences, and sources for the article.

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