Early Thoughts on Medhat’s Assassination

By Joseph Fitsanakis* | intelNews | 03.25.2009
Kamal Medhat
KAMAL MEDHAT, 58, WAS A senior Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) official who was assassinated on March 23 by a roadside bomb that struck a PLO convoy outside the entrance to the Mieh Mieh refugee camp, located near Sidon in southern Lebanon. Since Medhat’s assassination, intelNews has received several emails from readers pointing the finger at Israel’s intelligence services. There is no doubt that Medhat’s assassination is a significant setback for the broader secular Palestinian movement, and especially for Fatah, of which Medhat was a senior member. A former aide to the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, Medhat had previously served as Fatah’s director of intelligence in Lebanon, and was a key supporter of Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. To my knowledge, Medhat was the most senior Palestinian official (of any faction) assassinated in Lebanon in nearly 30 years. Nevertheless, although an Israeli role in his assassination should not be ruled out, it would be premature to conclude at this stage that Israeli intelligence services were behind the operation.

To begin with, it should be recalled that, in 2007, most of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps were turned into battlefields in a brutal factional mini civil war between Fatah, Hamas and smaller Palestinian splinter groups. At the Nahr al-Bared camp, located outside of Tripoli, Fatah militiamen sided with Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) in ransacking the place during clashes with Fatah al-Islam, a militant Palestinian opposition group. The entry of the ISF into the camp was in violation of the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which prohibits the Lebanese armed forces from entering Lebanese Palestinian camps. This was not forgotten by Fatah al-Islam, which vowed revenge against Fatah for assisting the operation. Even though the infighting has largely subsided since then, tensions remain high inside virtually all Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. In 1998 alone, sporadic clashes between armed groups resulted in over 12 deaths. 

These ongoing tensions should not be overlooked in searching for the culprits of Kaman Medhat’s assassination. Fatah, for one, is not ignoring them. In its first statement after Medhat’s killing, the group condemned “this terrorist crime [that] was carried out by agents whose aim is to crush Fatah and to eliminate its top leadership in order to gain power” (emphasis added). Fatah’s views are reportedly shared by Lebanese security officials, and even by As-Safir, Lebanon’s Syrian-backed daily that is usually quick to hold Israeli intelligence agencies responsible for all sorts of suspicious operations inside Lebanon. 

Additionally, Fatah sources revealed that Medhat had “received several death threats” in recent months (hardly standard operational procedure of the Mossad, which does not warn its targets) and even wrote Mahmoud Abbas a letter about them. What is more, it should be remembered that Israeli intelligence agencies are currently laying low in Lebanon, following last month’s uncovering by Hezbollah of an extensive Israeli spy ring inside Lebanon. Finally, the use of crude roadside bombs is generally not typical of Israeli assassination operations. These tend to employ more sophisticated techniques, as seen in the February 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyah, a senior Hezbollah military commander and intelligence official who was hiding in Syria. 

Undoubtedly, the situation in Lebanon is inherently complex, and none of the above should be taken as conclusive evidence. It is possible -though I think unlikely- that Israeli intelligence targeted Kamal Medhat precisely because he was seen as an active proponent of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Thus killing him in a manner usually employed by poorly equipped minor Palestinian splinter groups may be “aimed at breaking his initiative to establish dialogue with all the factions, including the Islamists”, in the words of one observer. If this was indeed the intention of Medhat’s assassins, then they will soon find out whether they have achieved their strategic goal. Speaking to journalists on March 24, General Munir al-Maqdah, senior member of the PLO and founder of the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, said that Palestinian factions have already conferred and “agreed not to turn Lebanon into an arena to settle Palestinian disputes”. The next few weeks will show whether this agreement will be honored.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.


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